A Star Is Born Finds Movie Magic in a Parking Lot

The Atlantic looks back on the key film moments of 2018, this time a spontaneous bit of songwriting in Bradley Cooper’s romantic musical drama.

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in 'A Star Is Born'
Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in A Star Is Born (Warner Bros.)

Over the next week, The Atlantic’s “And, Scene” series will delve into some of the most interesting films of the year by examining a single, noteworthy cinematic moment from 2018. Next up is Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born. (Read our previous entries here.)

By the time Ally (played by Lady Gaga) and Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) are sitting together in an empty parking lot in the middle of the night, they’ve already been through an odyssey. Jackson, a famous musician, crossed paths with Ally when she performed “La Vie en Rose” at a local watering hole. Enchanted by her charismatic stage presence, he takes her to another bar, interrogates her about her passions, and then, after she starts a fight with a drunken patron and hurts her hand, whisks her away to a supermarket to get a field dressing of frozen peas and gauze. All this happens within the first 30 minutes of A Star Is Born.

During this whirlwind meet-cute, Ally opens up about her thwarted efforts as a songwriter and her insecurity about her prominent nose. “Everybody’s talented … but having something to say, and a way to say it so that people listen to it, that’s a whole other bag,” Jackson tells her, as Ally looks on with a mixture of interest and incredulity. But it’s only when they’re sitting side by side on a concrete curb, with Ally nursing her hand, that Jackson starts to open up in return.

“Nobody ever asks you about you, huh?” Ally asks, as Jackson tells her about growing up on a pecan ranch, his screw-up dad having him late in life, and being raised by his brother. She sings her next line. “Tell me something, boy: Aren’t you tired trying to fill that void? Or do you need more? Ain’t it hard keeping it so hard-core?” It’s the scene the whole movie hinges on, whether or not the audience realizes it. If Ally’s sudden creative outburst seems ridiculous, or disrupts the realism of the encounter, the rest of the film won’t really be able to take flight. But Lady Gaga somehow makes the moment feel genuine, and Cooper helps sell it by looking at her dumbstruck.

Jackson has been peppering Ally with questions all night, nudging her about her ambitions, dismissing her perceived shortcomings, and flirting with abandon (including a particularly charged stroke of her nose). But Ally’s been taking stock of his character, too, and after their short time together, she’s emboldened enough to sing about it. “I’m falling, in all the good times, I find myself longing for change,” she adds, finally standing to belt out the chorus of “Shallow,” the film’s signature song. “Holy shit,” Jackson says, temporarily standing in for the audience.

The kind of tenderness on display here is hard to pull off in a totally naturalistic film, but A Star Is Born is also a musical of sorts, where characters can articulate their emotions far better through song. Cooper, who co-wrote and directed, manages to merge the two storytelling styles without sacrificing the distinct power of either. The parking lot is hardly a romantic spot, Ally’s hand is awkwardly wrapped in a bandage, and Jackson’s driver (Greg Grunberg) is leaning against the car and eating Cheetos 20 feet away. Still, the entire scene is imbued with a mystical air, as though these two characters have been struck with divine inspiration.

That’s exactly the magic of creativity—of “having something to say”—that Jackson has been monologuing about, and it’s mesmerizing enough to spur the two to fall in love, both with each other and with the songs they make together. A Star Is Born is one of the oldest Hollywood stories, and it takes a notoriously dark turn in its final act; but the film’s bigger ideas about the price of fame would feel hollow if they weren’t threaded through a relationship that the audience is sincerely invested in. The parking-lot scene—at once understated and soaring—is what seals the bargain for Jackson, Ally, and the viewer, and it could have just as easily been where the movie lost hold of all three.

Previously: Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Next Up: Burning