In the scene that defines (and redeems) Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut A Star Is Born, Ally (Lady Gaga), an embittered waitress who has all but given up on her dreams of pursuing a musical career, is dragged on stage by country rock star Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper). He wants her to sing with him, he wants the world to see her talent. It’s a gesture of largesse and, in a strange way, gratitude. It’s a gesture that will lay the foundation of their relationship. The director ensures that there is a suitable build up to it. It’s beautifully lit. Lady Gaga’s face emerges from the bokeh, confused and breathtakingly vulnerable. In one resolute movement, she places herself in front of the mike and starts singing.
But more than anything else, the scene is about untainted, unashamed hunger. It’s about a woman reaching out for something that has been denied to her so far. It’s about her staking claim on her rightful place in the world. She will not let men tell her that her nose is too big from this moment.
It’s a moment of empowerment and Cooper wants us to acknowledge that fact. We do and move on, but Cooper doesn’t. For the rest of the running time of the film, different versions of this scene plays out, the fluctuating power equation between the two notwithstanding. Time and again, the fallen, self-destructive rockstar tells Ally what’s the best for her, time and again she is suitably chastised.
This is the third official Hollywood remake of the 1937 classic of the same name. In between, Bollywood-made Aashiqui 2, which dealt with a similar subject. Cooper’s adaptation has gathered around itself the kind of Oscar-buzz that generally is reserved for films where male actors lose an inordinate amount of weight and female actors go without make-up. Lady Gaga, for most part of the film is make-up free, but that has no bearing with the plot, thankfully. However, her journey from a waitress to a pop icon is, pardon the sound track reference, remarkably shallow. She mouths, with wavering confidence, lines like – “I can’t recognise myself!”, “This is not me!”, when her agent asks her to glam up. “You are not yourself, I hope you come back to yourself,” says her drunk mentor. He wants her to rise above the trappings of the trade. He doesn’t want her to commercialize herself, we are led to believe. Yet, more often than not, it seems Maine (Cooper) has conflated commercialization with make-up. “You look ugly!” he slurs when she dyes her hair, dons fake eyelashes, wears sequinned body suits, in other words, becomes more Lady Gaga-y. He lectures her on her lyrics too, but like all mansplaining men, he seems to have decided to take offense on her behalf too. The film, which is populated with well-meaning, acerbic men’s men, justifies Maine’s stand. Ally has to be saved from the clutches of her own inevitable pop-icondom.
Cooper, who plays the charming, morally uncompromising artist, is almost text-book perfect when it comes to documenting his own journey to self-destruction. He makes sure that the Academy gets to know that he is more than willing to shame himself on camera for the sake of art. We are, after all, in an era of wink-at-the-Oscars performances. Lady Gaga, on the other hand, is more raw in her interpretation. There are scenes, especially where she is singing, where she seems to channel something deep and dark within her. Those make for great cinema. But there are other scene where the effort shows. You stop short of cringing.
Watch A Star Is Born for the iconic taking-the-stage scene, the film soars at that moment. Everything is worth that scene, even the cringey lows.