The movie’s arc is simple enough: A superstar meets an unknown ingenue, they fall in love, and she becomes hugely famous just as he hits a steep decline, brought low by alcoholism and the fickle trappings of fame. With each remake of the original 1937 film (which starred Janet Gaynor and Fredric March) has come a different meta-narrative. The 1954 Judy Garland version was a huge comeback for the former child star, positioning her as a serious actress, while the 1976 Barbra Streisand–starring rock musical was an overblown critical flop. Streisand was already far too famous to be believable as a total unknown who gets discovered, and unlike Garland she wasn’t bouncing back from a creatively fallow period.
Lady Gaga is somewhere in the middle—while her celebrity has never faded, her album sales have certainly dipped (though that’s partly thanks to the rise of streaming services). Her reputation as an exciting provocateur helped launch her, but in recent years she’s explored a more stripped-down singer-songwriter approach, in her collaborations with Tony Bennett and in her last album, Joanne. Whether coincidentally or not, Cooper’s film is primarily interested in the notion of “authenticity” in music, and how noxiously it can interact with fame. Where previous editions of A Star Is Born were less concerned with the actual art being created, Cooper’s succeeds in feeling new because of his attention to detail.
In the first A Star Is Born, Esther Blodgett (Gaynor) is a North Dakota girl who gets swallowed up by Hollywood, where she journeys to become an actress. She meets and falls for Norman Maine (March), a marquee idol in an alcoholic spiral, who helps her get her first big role. From there, Esther’s career skyrockets, and though she marries Norman, he quickly becomes a millstone, unable to kick his addiction. It’s a cycle that repeats in the 1954 and 1976 versions—the romantic relationship always has a paternalistic hint to it, and the alcoholism is little more than a plot device, a representation of the unconquerable pressures of life in the spotlight.
Cooper’s film takes much more care to humanize the male lead, now a country singer named Jackson Maine. It’s a choice that might sound counterintuitive given the preponderance of male star vehicles in film, but fleshing out the character is the smartest thing that Cooper (who wrote the movie with Eric Roth and Will Fetters) does. Maine feels like a real person, and his problems feel like real problems, rather than symbols of something larger. This makes Ally’s (Gaga) decision to throw her lot in with Maine much more plausible, especially as he begins to decline; their fates feel entwined for more than simple plot purposes.
Ally is still, of course, the film’s lead character. Lady Gaga is top billed in the credits (though, strangely enough, not on the movie’s poster), and Ally’s songs (written by Gaga and others) take center stage. But the movie’s triumph lies in Cooper’s ability to indulge in sheer romanticism—for the relationship at its center and for the act of creativity itself. The film’s scenes of Jackson and Ally writing and performing songs are its most thrilling; the duo’s key tension in the darker final act revolves around the idea, and definition, of “selling out.”