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If you could combine A Star Is Born, the remake already generating serious Oscar buzz, with Unbroken: Path to Redemption, the Christian biopic some WORLD Magazine readers and WORLD Radio listeners were unhappy with me for panning, you’d have the perfect dramatic film.
Unlike in Unbroken, nearly every moment of A Star Is Born feels real and specific. Often painfully so.
Rock star Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) has amassed legions of fans with his gritty sound and poetic lyrics. But success has isolated him and provided the means to indulge his worst impulses. When he meets struggling waitress/singer Ally (Lady Gaga) in a drag queen bar (this, along with foul language and a restrained sex scene, accounts for the R rating), he’s coping with his fishbowl existence by staying perpetually drunk.
Over the course of the night, as they talk about their shared passion for music, they begin to fall in love. Jack finds someone who’s still able to relate to him as a person and not a minor deity. Ally finds a mentor who wants to nurture her immense talent simply for the joy of seeing her finally recognize it herself.
All of this takes nearly an hour, during which time they never so much as kiss. The pacing gives us time to get to know them well enough to understand the attraction that draws them together and to see how each provides something the other’s heart is starved for. This, incidentally, is how I’d argue filmmakers should show love for people created in God’s image—by caring enough to create characters that reflect the complexity and individuality God gave human beings and not reducing them to two-dimensional cutouts on which to project a redemption message.
Once Ally joins Jackson on the road, collaboration multiplies their individual gifts exponentially, taking them to creative heights neither could have reached alone. (Their duet “Shallows” is already an Oscar shoo-in for best original song.)
Thus, when the pressures of the entertainment industry, Jackson’s addiction, and Ally’s ambition at last come to bear on their fragile romance, we experience their heartbreak and loss viscerally.
What’s amazing is that after so many cautionary tales about celebrity and substance abuse, A Star Is Born still finds a way to tell it afresh.
That, I told my husband as we left the theater, is how you portray alcoholism as the soul-mauling slavery to sin that it is rather than just as a convenient plot device. As in Crazy Heart, a similarly excellent movie starring Jeff Bridges, it starts with quiet menace lurking in the wings and ends in a display of humiliation so sharp you can’t help but cringe from it.
As my husband observed in return, if it doesn’t feel as if you’re watching a car crash in slow motion, then the filmmakers aren’t doing it right.
Cooper, who directs as well as stars, definitely does it right.
Of course, the story is predestined to end tragically. Once it tries to invest significance into the breakdown of its central romance, the story loses its honest voice, though in a way that feels highly relevant to the despair that seems to be invading our culture. For all its love of music, joy of creation, and passion for performance, the one thing A Star Is Born doesn’t have is what Unbroken: Path to Redemption did: hope in the face of pain.
The story believes in no higher purpose than in striving to say something authentic to the world. That may be a fine philosophy for creating a lifetime’s worth of good music (and it’s certainly one I’d advise would-be Christian filmmakers to heed). But it’s not enough of a philosophy for creating a life. Jack and Ally can’t even recognize the true source of what’s pulling them apart. They’re left with the only choice anyone has when he sees no meaning in his suffering—burn out or fade away.
—A shorter version of this review appears in the Oct. 27 print issue.