Bradley Cooper’s version of A Star is Born is the third Hollywood remake of the 1937 original, following on from George Cukor’s 1956 adaptation, starring Judy Garland, and Frank Pierson’s 1976 adaptation, starring Barbra Streisand. This time around, the young ingénue in question is Ally, played by Lady Gaga, although her time in the spotlight is more qualified than those of her three predecessors, thanks to the fact that the male lead is also the director of the film, as well as one of the chief songwriters and performers. In that sense, Cooper’s version is less about the birth of a star than the death of a star, since while Ally may be the supposed point of focus, and Gaga is the iconic musician, most of the stage time is devoted to Cooper’s numbers – either numbers he has written or numbers that he actually performs – despite the fact that Ally’s songs tend to be – predictably – much better.
To some extent, that feels like an attempt to prevent this tried-and-tested formula seeming formulaic, as Cooper is clearly interested in injecting a new visceral energy and intensity into what is, after all, a fairly hackneyed story by this point in Hollywood history. Unfortunately, he has chosen precisely the wrong way to go about it, sequestering so much of the film’s musical explosiveness to his own character, country rocker Jackson Maine, that the formula feels even more reactionary and conservative than it did the first time around, let alone in the 1956 and 1976 adaptations. It feels apt, then, that the film doesn’t really expand upon the musical milieu of the 1976 version – and certainly doesn’t reinvent it as radically as the 1976 reinvented that of the 1956 version. Once again, we’re in the world of guitar-strumming stadium rock, yet whereas that felt timely in the Streisand version, it feels positively retrograde in a musical world dominated by hip-hop and digital production, with a poster of Carole King’s Tapestry on Ally’s bedroom wall cementing the film’s indebtedness to the 70s, and its reservations about really engaging with the contemporary musical scene.
For that reason, Cooper almost never depicts the stage from the perspective of the audience, which doesn’t mean that the audience aren’t omnipresent, but that the film is invested in an older form of spectacle in which liveness was everything, and a rockist mentality in which every piece of music is ultimately destined for a live rendition. At moments, you can’t help but wonder whether Cooper’s unwillingness to show the audience is partly because it would date the film to the present – everyone would have SmartPhones – making Jackson’s 70s singer-songwriter persona feel even more dated than it already does in turn. To Cooper’s credit, that does makes the live performances quite spectacular – or at least the buildup to the live performances, since the threshold of the live experience tends to displace the acts themselves, as the film spends long periods of time on the approach to the stage, or on the side stage, while most of the renditions are built around long, suspenseful, instrumental introductions as the audience gets primed for the first live voice of the night.
Unfortunately, that also results in a fairly staid and snobbish rockist mentality that sees Jackson criticise Ally for selling out before she’s even started to fully develop her own voice as an artist. For Jackson, selling out means introducing dancers, electronic instruments and a more flamboyant palette, setting up an age-old distinction between rock “authenticity” and pop “artifice” that feels fairly dated in 2018. Nevertheless, that initially sets up an interesting tension between Ally’s queer roots (Jackson first “discovers” her in a drag bar) and Jackson’s guitar fetishism (he proposes to her by taking a string off a bank of vintage guitars). The fact that Gaga herself is such a queer icon, and has so consistently set herself against just this brand of rock “authenticity” also seems to promise a powerful dialogue between the stadium ethos of the 1976 film and a more pluralist and angular pop present.
Yet this tension never really comes to fruition, just because so much of the film is enslaved to Cooper and Jackson’s rockist version of authenticity. For one thing, Ally’s transition to pop music – neon and synthesizers – is so quick that it never feels authentic, and so brief that it never has time to flourish – the high point is a brilliantly flamboyant performance on SNL – meaning that her pop voice always seems like a contrivance compared to the more staid heartland rock trajectory that Jackson has outlined for her as his heir and protégé. For another thing, Ally’s manager, played by Rafi Gavron, is presented as the antagonist, despite the fact that he is continually trying to further her career, for the simple reason that his advice often cuts directly against Jackson’s rock snobbery, even or especially when he has helped usher Ally to her first Grammy award, and widespread musical acclaim and respect.
One of the odd consequences of the way in which this manager is positioned is that Ally seems revolted by fame when he provides it, but allured by fame when Jackson provides it, despite the fact that Jackson’s fame is infinitely more promiscuous and problematic (he does sponsored gigs for pharmaceutical companies) than what her manager is providing. In fact, as the film proceeds, it feels as if Ally’s voice is only meaningful to herself insofar as it is contoured by Jackson’s vision of authenticity – a strange gesture from a singer, like Gaga, whose entire career has been focused on dismantling and deconstructing what passes for authenticity in popular music, and the affectations of rock machismo in particular. At moments, it’s like witnessing an uneasy alliance between Gaga and all the conservative musical tendencies she has defined herself against, and while the film may recapitulate her own career trajectory from the synthpop of The Fame to the soft rock of Joanne, it does so by eliding the queer exuberance that made Joanne’s milder tones so surprising in the first place, effectively insisting that she was a rocker all along, and that the soundtrack of A Star is Born is her true calling – the apotheosis of everything she has achieved musically to date.
In some ways, that’s much more disingenuous than simply presenting Gaga in the guise of a different kind of singer, not least because it means that the queer fanbase that are presented sustaining her in the opening scenes of the film are utterly discarded by the end, or at least reduced to a few token words of support before the film sinks into its solipsistic and insular final third. During this act, A Star is Born does indeed seem to sense some inexorable limit to the rockist authenticity that Cooper is promulgating, as Jackson finds it harder and harder to compute Ally’s pop sensibility, sinking deeper into alcoholism until he spoils her Grammy win with a drunken debacle and ends up committing himself to rehab just as her first big tour is starting to take shape. While I suppose you could call this part of the film an elegy for rock, and a testament to the waning of rock, it’s hard to take seriously if you’re not invested in this idea of rock to begin with, and often feels like a film written and directed by a rock snob, for whom the waning of rock is a tragedy of such epic proportions that it overshadows Ally’s backstory, struggles and final rise to superstardom.
At the very least, when you take away the colossal self-importance of the film’s rockist mentality, this final section looks pretty bad for Jackson. Sure, his bad choices are partly attributed to his alcoholism, but it’s also true that his alcoholism peaks whenever Ally reaches a new plane of success, until you feel as if there simply isn’t enough room in the world for their two musical styles to coexist, despite the fact that she tries to accommodate him at every turn. For all his self-deprecating and defeated manner, he refuses to allow her to be a singer on her own terms at almost every step of the way, since the moment she steps out of his rock ethos he spirals into self-destruction, until it feels as if everything in the film services his pathos, and female stardom is itself unattainable without being overshadowed by the spectacle of male pathos and self-sacrifice. For that reason, I found it hard to take his final suicide seriously, just because it seems to culminate the message that hangs over the entire film – that he is unable to exist alongside her if she departs from his musical ideology, and that we are expected to see this as equally a tragedy for both of them.
It is fitting, then, that the final musical number in the film involves Ally performing a piece that Jackson wrote for her, rather than a piece of her own, before cutting to Jackson himself singing the conclusion before the credits roll. It is even more fitting that this piece utterly rejects Ally’s pop persona, instead framing her as the sincere singer-songwriter that Jackson always wanted her to be, and subsuming her into the chanteuse classicism that she exuded when he first saw her perform “La Vie en Rose,” with the critical difference that the queer fanbase that sustained her in those early years have now been entirely removed from the picture. Finally, it is fitting that, by these last stages of the film, Ally seems to have reverted to a more traditional singer-songwriter mode to appease Jackson anyway, and courted his heartland demographic than even he did, culminating with her decision to commence the opening performance of her own material with a heartland prayer. At the very moment at which her pop identity is reaching its apotheosis – her first tour as a solo artist – she therefore comes circle and subsumes herself back into Jackson’s vision of what she should be, and the kinds of audience that can easily be imagined rejecting Gaga outright in real life. And, for an artist as idiosyncratic as Gaga, that feels like a bit of a defeat, since for all that Jackson’s number one crowd pleasure speculates “it’s time to let the old ways die,” it’s the old ways that ultimately and awkwardly persist here, in the most conservative of all the different versions of this story and – perhaps not coincidentally – the most strategic and successful in garnering the critical acclaim and adulation that has got Jackson where he is.