When you first meet Lady Gaga’s Ally in A Star Is Born, she’s screaming in a toilet stall, hiding a private conversation from her fellow employees at the restaurant where she works. By the time the movie ends, she’s one of the most famous performers in the world, and the best and the worst moments of her private life have unfolded publicly, literally on stage.
It’s hard to plead empathy for the life of a celebrity. It’s even harder when the idea of celebrity is portrayed as the persecution of an artist. It’s canny, and perhaps necessary, then, for someone who is equal parts celebrity and artist—and nearly unrivaled on both merits—to play such a role. Lady Gaga nails it.
It’s hardly a hot take at this point to say that A Star Is Born is a great film, or that Lady Gaga is fantastic in it. The movie has screened at multiple festivals, earned rave reviews out of each one, and a video of Gaga crying while receiving a second standing ovation for her performance has gone viral.
That’s a lot of histrionics underscoring the film’s simplest pleasure, and a rare cultural moment: What a joy it is to watch a star of Lady Gaga’s magnitude delivering at the top of her game in a showcase with this much at stake.
A sticking point of the marketing push for this movie is that every generation gets its own version of A Star Is Born, with the love story tailored to the talents of its leading lady: Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, and Janet Gaynor. But what’s going on with Lady Gaga in this film goes beyond that. She passes the Cher test, proving herself a competent, captivating actress. Her vocals are the best they’ve ever sounded in the film’s songs, which will be released as a soundtrack and rank as one of her best albums to date. Oh, and she wrote those songs.
This is a film that treads in extremes. The emotions are extreme, the fashion is extreme, and the singing is extreme. It requires an out-and-out diva—not in the way that word is thrown around to describe any female performer these days, but in the way it is earned by unparalleled talent—to not only stretch herself to those extremes, but also guide the audience with her, without them feeling like they might speed off a cliff. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Lady Gaga, she of the wild stage productions and the pop-art theory and that epic Super Bowl show and the meat dress, rises to the occasion. But it’s still a delight that she does.
Singers have delivered stellar acting performances in movies before. Maybe Lady Gaga will earn a Best Actress nomination for this. Maybe she won’t. We wouldn’t be surprised either way because, fine as she is in the film, this isn’t a performance that is about the acting. It’s a cultural moment.
Hype is a blessing and a curse, and as such it’s an odd experience to walk into a movie assuming you’re going to love it, as we did—and likely, you will—with A Star Is Born. So let’s bring expectations back down to earth. Is it a “masterpiece,” a “movie for the ages,” as one repeatedly touted review proclaims? LOL, no! God no.
But, you know what? Bradley Cooper is good! Lady Gaga is good! The music is very good! It’s a good film! Feel free to assume you’re going to love it, because you probably will. There are so many hype bubbles surrounding this film that Lady Gaga could construct another dress out of them. But none of them pop. Again, the movie is good!
There are critiques to be made, and they have been. This might be one of the most written-about films ever, and it hasn’t even released yet. As much as the un-self-conscious melodrama of a film that charts an aspiring pop star’s rise juxtaposed against her lover’s demise is a rare, even guiltless pleasure, there are times when a little restraint would have been nice.
There are moments hampered by hokey dialogue, the type that fancies itself poetic. But at the same time, who cares when emotions are swirling around with this reckless abandon! When those cringey scenes give way to those phenomenal music performances! When Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper have such good chemistry! When the film luxuriates in her pared-down glamour and seduces us with his whiskey-soaked, rugged handsomeness! This is a fun film to watch, even as you devolve into a sobbing puddle by the time the credits roll.
The performance sequences are staged with perfectly pitched dramatic tension. They’re as thrilling as any action set piece or car chase in your typical blockbuster, but it’s the escalating emotions and raw talent that speed and careen around hairpin turns, without special effects. That’s Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper actually out there on stage at music festivals, actually singing, actually acting, actually connecting.
Some might argue that it takes you out of the movie to know or think about that, but that artifice only adds to the impressive spectacle of this film. Interviews with those involved have suggested just that: This was a movie meticulously crafted to be spectacular. That’s a precarious house of cards to build; misplace one and the the planned majesty of the whole enterprise crumbles into pretty, well-intentioned rubble. But pull it off, and it’s something to behold, appreciate, admire. It fits into these characters’ emotional arc. These are two artists who yearn to be validated, both for their talents and by each other. But also, as anyone who endeavors to share their talents with the world knows, they need be admired, too.
The fact that so much of Ally’s storyline—the idea of what it means to be an artist and a star, and what one must sacrifice to achieve both—mirrors what we imagine Lady Gaga has gone through in her own career adds poignance.
There’s her monologue about how record executives told her she could never be a singer because she wasn’t conventionally attractive, but in the end we see that embracing what some might see as physical flaws makes her most beautiful. (In the film, Cooper’s character, Jackson Maine, is enamored by her nose.) There is thinkpiece fodder about what it means that, in order to become a major pop star, she must sacrifice some of her identity as an artist in order to become a marketable package. Ally’s big break comes when Jackson sees her perform at a drag bar. “It’s good to be one of the gay girls,” she says, a meta nod to the fanbase that gave Gaga her early boost.
You’re watching Ally. But you never forget you’re watching Lady Gaga, too. You don’t want her to disappear into the role. The novelty of who she is is part of the point.
It’s funny, and in hindsight, unfair and possibly misogynistic how many times we’ve ruled that Lady Gaga’s star is reborn. Her career is just 10 years old, and yet we can’t count how many times critics wondered if she was spent, or had anything of value left to give each time a single didn’t chart, or an album didn’t earn raves, or she oh-so-briefly stepped out of the spotlight.
Ridiculous as that may have been, it has allowed her to consistently surprise as she reliably comes back roaring, talent-first: Sound of Music at the Oscars, the Tony Bennett record, the Super Bowl national anthem, the halftime show, Joanne. Maybe the tallest order we can demand of our pop stars is to deliver, to prove that you should never be underestimated.
There’s a cheesy, semi-insufferable monologue near the end of the film (it bears repeating, this is not a perfect movie) about how in songwriting “there’s only 12 notes, and the octave repeats” and “all an artist can do is offer the world how he sees those 12 notes.”
With A Star Is Born, Lady Gaga nails those 12 notes. And she takes it up a key, too.