Director: Bradley Cooper
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Rafi Gavron, Anthony Ramos, Dave Chappelle
Some stories seem to compel us to reimagine and reinvent them. A classic showbiz saga, A Star is Born, starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, is a remake of the 1976 film of the same title starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, which was itself a remake of the 1954 film of the same title starring Judy Garland and James Mason, which was, again, a remake of a 1937 film starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March which was called, you guessed it, A Star is Born. Each new telling of this story of two careers, one on the way up, the other on the way down, offers a slightly different perspective, a new insight. This newest telling offers reinvention in more ways than one, though, as its two stars reinvent themselves: pop music superstar Lady Gaga as actress and multiple Academy Award nominated actor Bradley Cooper as director.
While he still plays to sold out stadiums, Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a country-rocker on the decline. A lifetime of loud music has left his hearing irreparably damaged and getting worse, he regularly drinks himself to the point of unconsciousness, but more to the point he has just lost that spark. Stopping at a bar one night in search of another drink, Jackson witnesses a performance by waitress and aspiring singer Ally (Lady Gaga). He is entranced and the two spend the rest of the evening talking about music and singing and songwriting. The next night he invites her backstage to one of his shows and then, without warning, calls her out to perform a song they wrote together. Reluctant at first, in a moment of boldness Ally marches out on stage, belts out her song, and her life changes forever. On the road together their romance blossoms, but as her star rises, his continues to fade.
We naturally come to A Star is Born with questions: Can Lady Gaga act? Can Bradley Cooper sing? Can Bradley Cooper direct? What is there that this film can say that the previous three versions did not? From the very get go, Cooper sets about allaying our fears and assuring us that we are in safe hands. His first scene sees him commanding the stage and showing us not only that he can sing, but that he is also pretty handy on the guitar. Likewise, Gaga’s first scene, a dramatic phone call in which she breaks up with her boyfriend, requires her to flex her acting muscles. While there could be a version of this movie that is engineered as a star vehicle for Lady Gaga, playing on her established persona, what we get instead demands a whole lot more of her. She strips away the persona we know, building Ally from the ground up, and in the process proves that she can hold her own opposite seasoned actors like Cooper and Sam Elliott.
Jackson Maine is a melancholy character. A drunk and an addict, the first thing we see from him, before we even see his face, is him popping a couple of pills and taking a swig of whisky on his way to the stage. He drinks because he is sad. He drinks because he is lonely. When he meets Ally, she lifts him out of that melancholy and gives him a renewed energy, and yet he continues to drink. One of the things that a 21st century tellings of A Star is Born can bring is a different understanding of alcoholism and addiction than we had in the 1970s, 1950s and 1930s. Jackson is shown as suffering from an illness rather than just a character flaw. It means that even as he reaches his lowest ebb, and his actions really hurt those around him, we can maintain some sympathy for him. Likewise, it allows us to understand Ally’s decision to stay with him, to try and recover the man who she loves from this illness which is consuming him. One of the great strengths of this telling of the story is its nuanced approach to characters, allowing for some modulation in our feeling towards them. In the cases of both Jackson and Ally, we maintain an affection and sympathy for these characters even when, at different times, we see them make decisions that we don’t agree with.
One glaring area, however, where Cooper’s film lacks subtlety is in its depiction of pop music. Corporate and manufactured, the pop music machine is presented in harsh contrast to the authenticity of the country-rock that started the film, and to the philosophy Jackson has sought to instil in Ally that ultimately talent is not as important as having something to say. Her first single, ‘Why Did You Do That?’ (“Why do you look so good in those jeans? Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?”), is so intentionally uninspiring in comparison to the electricity of her earlier collaborations with Jackson that we share his disappointment with her trajectory (ultimately, in this telling of A Star is Born, the tension comes not from the fact that her fame has eclipsed his own, but that he believes she has compromised herself in order to get it). It might have been more interesting for Ally’s pop music be of a high quality – as Lady Gaga’s music is – to then challenge Jackson’s notion that the pursuit of authenticity and voice requires Ally to follow his path.
Generally, however, the music in A Star is Born is outstanding, both in presentation and quality (the music is co-produced by Lukas ‘son of Willie’ Nelson, while his band Promise of the Real, who also happen to be Neil Young’s current backing group, serve as Jackson’s band). While there are a number of performance scenes in the film, as a director Cooper does an impressive job of making sure the don’t all feel the same. Rather than halting the narrative, each performance means something, telling us something new about the characters or relationships. The performances, some of which were shot on stage at Coachella and Glastonbury, have incredible, goosebump-inducing electricity, owing to a thrilling, almost documentary-like immediacy which makes you feel like you are a part of it.
A Star is Born is ultimately a spectacular showcase for two disgustingly talented people which will surely be a player come Oscars time. In an impressive directorial debut, Cooper demonstrates deft control over mood and tone. Turbulent and tender, Ally and Jackson’s relationship is powerful and authentic in a non-movie way. It is a romance which doesn’t swoon so much as it acknowledges that love can be hard and, at times, downright heartbreaking.
Review by Duncan McLean
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