Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born feels confused. While recognizable as the third remake of the 1937 original because of similar plot points, the journey Cooper’s version takes to arrive at those plot points feels more muddled, almost as if Cooper himself was unsure where to put his focus while making his version.
A Star is Born has always been a story with two distinct plotlines, but Cooper seems to have a hard time knowing when one should end and the other should begin. Each version has focused on a romance between a falling, self-destructive veteran of an entertainment industry and a rising star in that same industry, and Cooper’s version is no different. However, in this version, the screen-time each character receives, while fairly even in terms of actual time spent on screen, is spread out somewhat oddly.
The first half introduces the main characters, but spends much of its time focused on up-and-coming singer/songwriter Ally (Lady Gaga, in what will hopefully be the first of many lead roles) and her rise within the music industry. The other lead, Jackson Maine (Cooper, giving a career best performance) is introduced, present throughout the first half, and important to the plot (him meeting Ally is what leads to her entering the music industry), but much of the first half is spent focusing on Ally and her stardom while introducing, but not focusing on, what will be important for Jackson’s storyline in the second half, which focuses more heavily on Jackson and his struggles with drug and alcohol addiction.
The shift into the second half is jarring not only because of the change in focus, but also because elements from the first half are still present. Ally and her music are still important, but are no longer the focus, in spite of some scenes in the second half being entirely devoted to those things. The changes in focus throughout the course of A Star is Born cause a disorganized, confusing, sometimes even hard to follow experience.
And this is precisely what makes it great.
From the beginning, it is clear that drug and alcohol addiction will be a part of Jackson’s story. In the very first scene, he takes a handful of unspecified pills before going on stage. After finishing his show, he asks his driver to take him to a bar. It is clear that this is his regular routine. Because they are unable to find the bar he had in mind, Jackson goes to the nearest bar he can, which turns out to be a drag bar where Ally sings.
Jackson’s routine of taking pills, performing and then drinking the night away directly leads to him encountering Ally. The drinking doesn’t stop there either, as after she sings, Ally and Jackson begin to take a liking to each other and go out to another bar. Their relationship begins and continues through Jackson’s addictions. These opening scenes set the precedent for what happens in the second half, where Jackson’s problems come to the forefront.
The uncertainty of whether or not to focus on Jackson’s addictions or Ally’s rising stardom throughout A Star is Born is in keeping with Jackson’s own mindset. He struggles to choose between being there for the woman he loves or indulging his urges. Jackson’s confusion is directly reflected by Bradley Cooper’s filmmaking. The tragedy of his indecision is made clear by how it effects those around him, but is emphasized by how it effects the storytelling. One example of this is the amount of time spent with the two main supporting characters, Ally’s father, Lorenzo (a surprisingly tender turn from Andrew Dice Clay) and Jackson’s much older brother, Bobby (Sam Elliot, nearly stealing the show). Lorenzo is seen much more in the first half than Bobby, but during the second half, as less time is spent focusing on Ally’s life outside of Jackson, Lorenzo is given less screen-time. Meanwhile, Bobby only appears in a few brief scenes in the first half and only becomes a fleshed out character once Jackson’s addictions become the focus of the story. This emphasizes the increased focus on Jackson’s interior life. The shift in focus can also be seen through the use of music.
Whether it be Jackson’s country-rock or Ally’s pop stylings, the music throughout A Star is Born is lively and beautiful, and every musical performance scene is masterfully shot by cinematographer Matthew Libatique. However, as the film as goes on, and as Jackson falls deeper into his addictions, fewer songs get played.
Throughout the first half, entire songs get played uninterrupted, but during the second half, songs are usually only heard in snippets, and when they do get played in full, they are interrupted by characters talking over them. Similar to how Ally’s storyline decreases as Jackson’s addictions take center stage, the waning frequency with which music is played or even discussed demonstrates the level of control Jackson has allowed drugs and alcohol to have over him.
A Star is Born is a masterfully handled directorial debut. The script (Cooper, Will Fetters, and Eric Roth) is constantly shifting in focus, but thanks to careful editing from Jay Cassidy, and precise directing from Bradley Cooper, what could have been a confusing, incomprehensible experience instead turns into a suitably harsh look into the effects of addiction. The movie is deeply sad, but also deeply beautiful and humane.