K. Austin Collins’s review published on Letterboxd:
I like this movie quite a bit, but why do people keep lying about it?
It’s clear that the problem with this movie is that Bradley Cooper—lead actor, director, co-writer, co-producer—has pushed himself so far into its center that he doesn’t seem to realize he’s not actually supposed to be its star. Buddy, you’re pretty much here to be a tragedy—not even a heroic fuckup, really, but a painful liability. And so many of the film’s other perceived flaws—anti-popness, especially—proceed from this misunderstanding. It isn’t that the movie hates pop; it’s that the movie takes for granted that Gaga/Ally need no further explanation, because pop needs no further explanation, because it doesn't have to prove or explain itself, because—as Jackson alludes to in his own case—it’s time isn’t up, its fans aren’t disappearing: it’s pop.
In a way, it’s a form of deification: rather than asking questions of pop, the movie feels a weirdly slanted awe. It’s still a form of pop hatred—a strange attitude for a pop movie! It assumes that everything you need to know is already at the surface. Whereas Jackson Maine, a musical relic and a walking fuckup, is all thoroughly-backstoried depth. Rock is nuanced, expressive, real; his soul and his pain are bound up in it, which is part of what he means in advising Ally to have something to say. Jackson has something to prove—or rather Cooper eagerly wants to make that case. And Cooper, making his debut auteurist turn, has something to prove, too. Unabashedly.
The movie makes Jackson the center of its action, its psychology, its drama. What feels like an anti-pop attitude is really just a matter of too little attention to who Ally is, what she wants, how she feels about all these questions of authenticity Jackson raises from the very first
moment he scrubs the artifice from her face—whereas Jackson’s got entire scenes wandering far off the wagon and away from Ally, an entire life away from her (granted, largely involving addiction). And where is Ally during these moments? Thinking about Jackson. Looking for Jackson. Covering for Jackson. Cancelling a tour for Jackson. Being embarrassed by Jackson.
The movie grants that she’s brilliant enough to write “Shallows” on the spot—then suggests she’d be satisfied singing about butts and not feeling like a sellout. Her rise is swift, unlikely, and completely lacking the reverential mythology that Jackson, whose music is heard in cop bars and (per his brother’s late monologue) all over the place, has been given here. Who are her fans? Who is her audience? Beyond her father, they never materialize; her music doesn’t “matter” in that way. Who’s even listening to her music, really? What matters to the movie is the bare fact of her transformation—and what it means for Jackson, who on the one hand is so triggered by her success that her shitty SNL performance literally drives him to relapse while on the other hand being a faithful accomplice. Is this your king?
The problem isn’t that it makes her a sellout: the problem is that it doesn’t give her enough credit, or inner life, for caring either way, even as all roads point to her caring; there’s a Carole King poster hanging over her bed, for chrissake. She’s playing second fiddle in a movie which, from its title onward, had her slated for first. It’s musical chairs, and Cooper stole her seat.