A Star is Born
About once a generation Hollywood remakes A Star is Born, usually with the same formula of a young talent being discovered by an established performer, and a romance developing as the latter’s star declines with the former’s rise. That story, first filmed in 1937 with Janet Gaynor in the title role and Fredric March as her partner, had a universality to it Hollywood couldn’t help but revisit with Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954 and Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976. This latest version however, is the first in over forty years, and not only marks the first leading movie role for Lady Gaga but the directorial debut of Bradley Cooper, who also stars opposite her. The goal of A Star is Born is to prove that its simple and lasting story can be told today and not feel outdated. And not only does this 2018 revision do that, but it’s the best of any of them.
One night after a concert, alcoholic country music star Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) visits a bar where he encounters a young singer Ally (Lady Gaga), impressed by her performance of “La Vie en Rose”. Smitten with her, he encourages her song writing, culminating in him inviting her to perform one of her originals with him on stage. From there, her profile rises exponentially, at the same time as their romance, but his addictions and fading career threatens to damage all that personal and professional success.
A Star is Born has always been a bit of a romantic parable, an American Dream fantasy for young girls in particular, that we now know to be a lie. It also is a story that has traditionally glamourized showbusiness, something else that doesn’t resonate anymore. The challenge in updating this story was to contextualize those ideas in a modern setting and make it believable without resorting to outright cynicism. And this movie really does that. While it does skirt a few of the more unsavoury aspects of fame and the music industry, like harassment and inequality, it’s refreshingly honest in others, like the pressure, superficiality, and branding. Ally’s much more initially reluctant than either incarnation of Esther Blodgett and has more anxiety related to her superstar status. It doesn’t make her any less thankful for her success, but it does ground her. The film accounts for modern media and sensational scale too, most notably at the end of the second act with a scene anyone who knows the other movies will be expecting, but is much more uncomfortable. The story more accurately explores Jackson’s toxic vices and the realistic impact they would have on Ally’s reputation for being intimately connected with such a controversial figure. The movie goes further with his destructive behaviour, allowing him to be more repugnant and despicable. Rather than the mere spats of previous versions of the story, Ally and Jackson have a full-on fight, and it’s hard to watch.
The chemistry between Lady Gaga and Cooper though is terrific, apparent from their first interaction. As incompatible as they seem at times, there’s an unmistakably deep connection between them and it saves what might otherwise be a bad relationship. Cooper starkly sells the depression of a has-been musician caught in a downward spiral. He’s given more backstory than his predecessors: a tense but important relationship with his much older half-brother played by an exemplary Sam Elliott, and a case of tinnitus that has in some part led to his drinking. He’s an incredibly sympathetic figure, through his mistakes and misdemeanours. The only real drawback of the exploration of these facets of his life is that they may come at the expense of Ally’s story, which should be more important. And also, Lady Gaga’s just amazing. She was the perfect person to play the latest Star of A Star is Born, given her own rise to fame and burgeoning acting talent. She’s likeable, relatable, passionate, and has immediate screen presence and charisma. And of course, she’s a very good singer.
The songs, written by both its stars, are quite good (particularly “Shallow” and “I’ll Never Love Again”, one of which will definitely earn an Oscar Best Original Song nomination). They match their fictional artists well and are informed by plot and character developments while also being the movies’ lifeline. This movie is built on music, the power of music, and saying things through music, and that’s never undermined by its themes of fame and love.
The musical spells may also be Cooper’s greatest showcase as director. He and cinematographer Matthew Libatique shoot the performances especially well, utilizing tracking shots to bring the audience onto the stage and into the moment, keeping the sequences dynamic and interesting without having to cut away or make them a music video. But Cooper’s also really good at directing confrontations and important character actions, knowing where to put the focus. Such is the case with one crucial scene near the end. And as with the rest of the film, it goes further in that ending.
Homages to the other Star is Born movies find their way into this one, including one really nice musical reference early on. This is clearly a movie that respects the prior versions of the story it’s retelling. But there are no especially memorable scenes in any of those previous versions. Cooper creates two. The pivotal scene where Ally sings for her first great audience (though being unfairly forced into it by Jackson in another instance of his awfulness), and the last song sequence, the movies’ finale. Both are striking and marvellous, but the latter especially leaves you stunned. It’s not often a movie cuts out on exactly the right shot.