Standing on the side of the stage as a stadium crowd roars and Bradley Cooper’s teasing cowboy crooner begs her to join him shortly into "A Star is Born," Lady Gaga’s Ally has a choice to make. She can walk out on the stage and sing a duet with him, or she can let the opportunity of a lifetime pass. It’s a trope that you’ve seen a dozen times, but you can’t help the voice in your head begging her to do it. You know she’s going out there, but God, what if she doesn’t?
The tension squeezes you, despite the feeling that you may have seen the exact scene before. But it grabs you because Lady Gaga is so good that the desperation in her voice, as Ally wonders out loud if she should go on the stage and makes you think that even she does not know how it will end.
The scene, like this remake of "A Star is Born," overpowers its stale tropes by the sheer willpower of two lead actors hellbent on dragging the musical romance into the 21st century — and they have the chemistry and vocals to do it.
The 2018 version is the third remake of a film first released in 1937. The second edition came in the 1950s, followed by a 1976 rendition featuring a permed Barbra Streisand as Esther Hoffman. The 2018 version is modeled after the 1970s remake, and the plot is frustratingly dated.
By day Ally is a waitress and by night she is a singer at a drag bar, where she first meets Cooper’s Jackson Maine. He stumbles in one night after performing a concert nearby. They lock eyes as she belts out the last notes of “La Vie en Rose” in smooth French while lying down with her back on the bar.
This waitress-bar-singer version of Gaga — with choppy brown locks and barely any makeup — is not one the “Edge of Glory” singer has shown often. Stripped of the shiny outfits and styling, she’s nearly unrecognizable.
This uncharacteristic vulnerability is part of what makes her character so compelling. Where an unknown actress’s visage would be taken as her “normal” and her transformation into a pop star throughout the course of the movie would feel new, Gaga grows into her superstar form and style throughout the movie. Ally’s rags-to-riches metamorphosis is thrown askew by the audience’s cognizance of her real-life counterpart as a perfectly coiffed pop star.
The vulnerability shown by Ally early in the movie, when the confidence that comes from her voice and work ethic is challenged by her insecurity in her physical appearance — specifically the size of her nose — is expertly portrayed by Gaga in her big screen debut. But she does not let her co-star Cooper, a novice singer who also directed the film, rest on his acting laurels to play the cocksure country singer. All the music in the film was recorded live.
After the pair meet at the drag bar, they spend the night talking with one another. He asks Ally to join him at a concert the next day, but she initially declines, but eventually decides to go and takes the stage with Maine. They belt out a duet (“Shallow”) that was conceived the night before in a parking lot. A whirlwind climb follows as Ally carves out a fan base of her own and lands a record deal, which steers her away from the country music the pair was singing and into the pop landscape.
The soundtrack, a consistent highlight of film, continues to shine down the stretch. Cooper’s gravelly boom comes through in “Always Remember Us This Way," though Gaga is in a stunted version of her full rock star form in the choppy and repetitive “Is That Alright?” The soundtrack has now given the pair a No. 1 album, as it topped the charts and has more than 48 million streams.
As Ally’s success continues to grow, Maine’s alcoholism and drug addiction worsens. The tension created by her career threatening to eclipse his own as she lands a record deal and sings on “Saturday Night Live” is softened by their ability to call each other out on his jealousy. They get engaged, with a guitar wire ring, and married in one day.
But his addiction continues to be a roadblock for their relationship, and after a disaster at the Grammys he ends up in a rehabilitation center. Like he sings in “Shallow,” she is a salve for his worsening addiction.
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In all the good times
I find myself longing for change
And in the bad times I fear myself
Like her response in the first song they sang together, it is Jackson’s struggle — borne in a difficult childhood and sharpened by addiction — that brings the love story to a dramatic and heart-wrenching finale.
Tell me something boy
Aren't you tired tryin' to fill that void?