A Star is Born (2018)

Director: Bradley Cooper
Screenplay: Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters (based on the 1954 screenplay by Moss Hart and the 1976 screenplay by John Gregory Dunne & Joan Didion and Frank Pierson; based on a story by William Wellman and Robert Carson)
Stars: Lady Gaga (Ally), Bradley Cooper (Jackson Maine), Sam Elliott (Bobby), Andrew Dice Clay (Lorenzo), Rafi Gavron (Rez Gavron), Anthony Ramos (Ramon), Dave Chappelle (George “Noodles” Stone), Ron Rifkin (Carl), Barry Shabaka Henley (Little Feet), Michael D. Roberts (Matty)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2018
Country: U.S.
A Star is Born
A Star is Born

Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut A Star is Born is the fourth iteration of the rising/falling star melodrama that Hollywood first produced back in 1937 as a vehicle for Janet Gaynor and Frederic March. It was remade by George Cukor in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason and then again in 1976 with Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Each iteration of the story maintains the same basic narrative structure while also reflecting its time and culture. While the first two versions were about rising actresses in Hollywood, the 1976 version and Cooper’s new film replace the Hollywood star system with the world of rock music, a nod to the changing dynamics of American entertainment. The Streisand-Kristofferson version is widely derided, and while both the 1937 and 1954 versions have their own merits, Cooper’s film stands as the best, offering proof that remakes are not always evidence of artistic bankruptcy and a dearth of new ideas, but can be invigorating updates to time-honored stories that approach the edge of myth.

The new screenplay by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Cooper, and Will Fetters (The Best of Me) begins by intercutting the very different lives of its protagonists: Ally (Lady Gaga), a waitress with a beautiful voice who sings Friday nights at a drag bar, and Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a veteran rock star who still fills stadiums, but it slowly burning out from years of drug and alcohol abuse, not to mention a family history of mental illness and encroaching hearing loss. When Jack stumbles into the aforementioned drag bar looking for a drink while being driven from his latest concert to the airport, he sees Ally perform Édith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” and is immediately smitten. He wants to meet her, and they end up spending the rest of the night together sharing stories about their lives, after which he invites her to his concert the next night, where he pulls her on stage and convinces her to sing a duet version of a song she shared with him the night before. As the title suggests, a star is born on the stage that night (fueled the next day by millions of YouTube views, this being 2018 and all), and soon Ally is ascending to the heights of popular music stardom. Her touring with Jack, with whom she becomes romantically involved, spins off into a solo career that soon eclipses his.

To the film’s credit, A Star is Born is about many things, all of which are richly interwoven to create a full-blooded dramatic arc that, while dealing in familiar beats and story arcs, never feels arch or cliched. The film is primarily about identity and the struggle to achieve and maintain one. When the film opens, Jack has a fully embodied identity, at least in his stage presence, where he is confident, strong, and assured of his art. Once he leaves the spotlight, he regresses into a haze of booze that grows steadily darker as the film progresses. Ally, on the other hand, is struggling to find an identity as she balances the realities of her working-class life with her dreams of making music. Encouraged since childhood by her father (Andrew Dice Clay), who runs a driving company and talks embarrassingly about his own his own unfulfilled promise and his desire for Ally to make good on hers, she has been consistently rejected because her physical appearance doesn’t match her vocal and songwriting talents. “I think you’re beautiful,” Jack tells her, and he means it. He’s not trying to pick her up, but rather is indicating that, unlike others, he really sees her.

Hardly unattractive, Ally is nevertheless not a conventional beauty, and Jack’s already established stardom allows her entry into the rarefied world of pop stardom by way of her talent, rather than her appearance. She is soon being put through the grinder, with her no-nonsense producer (Rafi Gavron), who knows potential star power when he sees it, telling her that she needs to change her hair color and perform with backup dancers and otherwise abandon her self-made musical identity in favor of a manufactured one that fits neatly on billboards and sells singles. The film clearly idolizes the direct artistry of the singer-songwriter, a mold into which Jack’s country-inflected, guitar-driven rock stylings fit perfectly, while casting mass-produced pop performance as insincere and a betrayal of true artistry. Ally tries to resist, casting off her backup dancers at the last minute in an early performance, but she eventually gives in, something that bothers Jack even as he sinks further into his own self-created abyss.

In that regard, the film is a brutally honest and compelling portrait of the deadly intersection of mental illness and substance abuse. Cooper makes Jackson into an imminently likeable rogue, one who is in a position where he can be truly honest with Ally. His relationship with her is never exploitative, but rather deeply romantic and driven by his genuine appreciation of her talent (the way his eyes light up when she sings her one of his songs while they sit in a supermarket parking lot in the middle of the night tells you everything you need to know). Yet, he is in a constant battle with his own demons, which is reflected in his strained relationship with his older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott), who also works as his manager. Unlike the male protagonists in the previous versions of a A Star is Born, Jack has a dramatic backstory involving an alcoholic father that gives his adult struggles a deeper sense of tragedy, as his downward spiral becomes not just a narrative counterbalance to Ally’s dramatic ascent, but also a painful reminder of how history repeats itself. His fate is constantly foreshadowed, which makes it all the more devastating.

Cooper, who has been twice nominated for an acting Oscar (for 2013’s Silver Linings Playbook and 2014’s American Sniper), proves himself to be a deft director with a keen visual sensibility. There is nothing overtly flashy about A Star is Born, but Cooper and cinematographer Matthew Libatique give it a compelling sense of immediacy that relies a lot on close-ups (probably a few too many on Cooper himself, as he sometimes falls prey to the actor-director’s tendency to lavish camera time on his own emoting mug). Libatique’s previous work with Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Mother!) shows in the frequent, close travelling shots behind characters are they walk into new situations. Cooper is also excellent at evoking the energy and abandon of the live music experience, as the concert scenes in A Star is Born are some of its best assets; at times, it felt tonally and emotionally similar to Mark Rydell’s The Rose (1979), the dramatic portrait of rock star excess that turned pop musician Bette Midler into a movie star.

Which brings us to the casting of Lady Gaga as Ally, a major gamble if ever there were one. Gag’s pop music credentials—both stage and screen presence and songwriting and singing chops—are undeniable, but she had no previous dramatic acting experience. Nevertheless, she delivers again and again with a subtle, heartfelt, and genuine performance. She and Cooper have significant screen chemistry that lifts their characters over some of the plot’s necessary contrivances; he is completely believable in being so immediately smitten with her, while her reluctance to fully embrace her one-in-a-million opportunity rings true. Their romance is fully idealized, as they never truly waver from their commitment to each other. There is one painful sequence in which Jack, attempting to be honest in how he feels about Ally’s pop turn, ends up just insulting her unnecessarily, but otherwise the film is largely free of concern that their love is too fragile for the world they inhabit. That idealism, though, is part of the film’s backbone, and it allows it to weather the highs and lows. The result is a wonderfully surprising, effective, and poignantly romantic film, a new iteration of an extremely old story that works because it is honest about the harder, underlying realities of pop star dreams.

Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3.5)

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