I have spent a disproportionate amount of time thinking about Bradley Cooper’s snot since the credits rolled after my first viewing of A Star Is Born.
Cooper’s words spend at least half of A Star Is Born fighting their way up and out of the mucus-slick throat of Jackson Maine, the weary country-rock star he plays in his directorial debut. The brilliant lapis of Cooper’s eyes pop in the film, but mostly because the whites of them are bloodshot and sun-damaged. His voice, trained to a tone deeper than the typical tenor we’re used to hearing in other films, is clumsy and humble when he speaks thanks to the congestion blunting his consonants. Those who drink don’t get the benefit of REM sleep thanks to liquor’s depressive current in the bloodstream, and Cooper’s lens on Maine wants you to feel this — that he’s suffering from a chronic hangover and professionally-mandated exhaustion, a specific condition tailor-made for musicians who wrestle their personal demons (and occasionally lose) before tens of thousands of screaming strangers for a living. When you drink, all the time, and the insides of your lungs are sooty with the kicked-up desert dust of a music festival, and you rip your heart open for the sake of stitching someone else’s up every night, a body like Maine’s is a bruised, confused machine that’ll show its slow breakdown in unsavory ways — right on down to sounding like you’re constantly fighting off the flu because you’re constantly picking up the bottle.
This detail is one of many that demonstrate just how deeply Cooper threw himself into real life rock and roll by immersion — the way the light falls in shards on him as he and his band roared to life; the building, metallic threat of his tinnitus; his grip when he shakes the neck of his guitar to nail the effect he wants; his hoarse flirtations when he and Lady Gaga sit in a parking lot as the sun comes up. These human touches are what makes A Star Is Born such a brutally accurate portrait of a self-immolating artist who’s a far too familiar archetype on and off the screen, as every detail — even the ones that couldn’t fall farther from glamour — forces us to remember what inspired the movie in the first place. (I know because I’ve lived it — not in Maine’s shoes, but as a person sprinting between festival stages and inhaling her share of desert dust on the periphery of artists like him, trying to jot down the dream as he lives it as tour managers lecture talent on the importance of in-ear monitors just as Maine’s brother Bobby does in the film.)
Maine makes his entrance in A Star Is Born on the Palomino Stage of Stagecoach, and every one of his steps is immediately weighted in recognition. The country music festival sprawls across the same stretch of Palm Desert turf as Coachella, and in the fall of 2016 — months before Cooper and company borrowed a few minutes from Willie Nelson’s set to film Maine’s fictional one — he attended the classic rock gathering Desert Trip on those same grounds, where he watched Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real back Neil Young.
In A Star Is Born, Cooper fuses fact and fantasy, paces from where he came up with the idea: onscreen, Nelson plays Maine’s sideman, but on set, Nelson was Cooper’s right hand as far as the music and the playing of it was concerned, as he was brought onboard to consult after Cooper saw him perform. Maine and Nelson trade slicing solos as the full Palomino Tent roars their approval, and it’s all over in a flash before Maine ducks into a waiting SUV where he unscrews the cap of a bottle and breathes. The scene is important, but not just because the execution is flawless and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it pacing is perfect: It’s a direct nod to Nelson’s contributions and a reminder that this whole epic wouldn’t be unfolding had Cooper not watched the guitarist deftly handle “Harvest Moon” just a few months prior and a couple hundred feet away.
He continues to lean on Nelson’s experience, and Gaga’s, too, while dodging clichés to steer A Star Is Born clear of anything close to Almost Famous territory. Authenticity is marrow in A Star Is Born’s bones, and Gaga’s insistence that Cooper learn how to sing and strum instead of mouthing along to a pre-recorded track was one of the most popular talking points for both stars leading up to the release of the film. That attitude — that this was to be done right, or not done at all — extended to the realest aspects of a musician’s life, in that it included every methodical, mundane aspect of the daily routine of a working musician. (Several real-life musicians do pop up in the film: Folk-rockers Marlon Williams and Brandi Carlile share knowing looks of exasperation that melt into relief when Maine nearly blows it during a Grammys performance, and Binky Griptite and Joe Crispiano, known for their work with the Dap-Kings, play guitar in Ally’s backing band on SNL.)
Instead of VIP room shenanigans, we see Maine’s frustrated soundchecks and maddening, slapdash rehearsals for the Grammy Awards ceremony. Instead of tour bus and hotel suite destruction and captivating performances, we see tense moments with obstructed views from side-stage when Maine watches Ally flourish as a pop star on Saturday Night Live, and bitter fights in bath tubs that could erupt in any unstable relationship. And instead of presenting Ally’s career as a grittier Cinderella story — one in which Maine gave her an opportunity and made her a star — Cooper is careful to stress that Maine’s possessive, overbearing approach to her and her career is more about him than Ally, a power dynamic that’s played out across on every level of the music industry since its inception.
Watching Maine lose control and clamor after it in every aspect of his life — including, and especially, his relationship with Ally — is painful to watch, because Cooper was sure to shape their unraveling as a story we already know. To say that Ally was discovered by Maine and handed a career isn’t incorrect, but it’s incomplete, and glosses over how their whole epic began with a slight violation on Maine’s part. He saw her potential and exposed her work to his audience, but didn’t ask for her permission before doing so, while leaving his mark on it with his arrangement. “Shallow” is suddenly their song instead of hers; her meteoric success is never entirely her own, and she’s denied the agency of her own big break in spite of his best intentions, a realization he never recovers from when he eventually has it.
When her career takes off and their relationship endures staggering challenges created by Maine’s addictions and his disenchantment with the industry, she’s repeatedly denied the chance to choose, say or do what she wants. Her acceptance speech at the Grammys is overshadowed by his blackout; her physical transformation is deemed “ugly” or rebellious because it doesn’t fit Maine’s ideal for her, or her manager’s; he interrupts her rehearsal to apologize for insults he hurled at her when she was taking a bath. Even Maine’s devastating exit is a catastrophe brought on by this pathos and his illness, where he makes the decision for the both of them that she’s better off without him.
Cooper’s unforgiving lens indicts Maine and his demons for their indiscretions, but he indicts a deeper, systemic tension that seizes on passionate people terrified at the prospect of losing everything they’ve worked so hard to have. Gaga’s spoken on this at length, in interviews and in her 2017 documentary, Gaga: Five Foot Two. While preparing to film a scene for American Horror Story, she speaks on the relatable plight of her character, a witch who fled persecution — one that resonated in her own life, as she was working through the end of a relationship and the beginning of a new chapter in her career. “Whenever you become more powerful in a relationship or in business, there’s always opposition,” she says. “Being a woman, you were owned. Women are still very much owned in a lot of ways.”
A Star Is Born could’ve been a very different movie had Cooper opted to focus on music industry tropes instead of the details, no matter how gross, unremarkable, unbecoming or unfamiliar to those who haven’t seen them up close. This commitment to the world he wanted to create required letting the artists take the lead for a few bars, and it’s all too appropriate that his performance — and Gaga’s, and Nelson’s, and the rest — succeeded on the strengths of hard-lived truth. Living the dream was never supposed to be easy, but A Star Is Born genuinely tries to show why the dream is so tough to survive.