Star is Born, A (2018)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/30/18 22:35:49
(Worth A Look)
Considering that the two previous iterations of the cinematic warhorse that is “A Star is Born”—the masterful 1954 version with Judy Garland and James Mason and the fairly laughable 1976 take co-starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson—both arrived in theaters amidst astonishing levels of promotional ballyhoo, it is perhaps only fitting that a new take would hit multiplexes while riding a wave of hype that is ordinarily only seen today in films featuring the words “Star” and “Wars” together in the title. And yet, the hoopla surrounding this one, which has only grown further since rapturous screenings at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals, has now gotten so excessive that some people are claiming that it is not just the best variation of this particular story but one of the great films of all time as well as being the immediate front-runner in this year’s awards scrum. There are few films that could live up to such expectations and this one, when all is said and done, is not quite one of them. This is not to say that it isn’t good—it is a well-made and entertaining take on an old chestnut and features a debut screen performance (assuming we are overlooking her jokey bit part in the “Machete” sequel) that could legitimately be considered a star-making turn. However, anyone going into the film expecting a masterpiece for the ages definitely needs to dial down expectations—not only is it not one of the greatest films ever made, it is not even the best version of this particular story by a long shot.The basic narrative, which got its first run-through in a non-musical 1937 version starring Janet Gaynor and Frederic March, is by now so embedded into the cultural consciousness that even those who have never seen it before in any version will pretty much know it by heart. Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper, who also co-wrote the screenplay and makes his directorial debut) is a country-rock singer for whom immense fame has taken an undeniable toll—he is an addict who downs enormous amounts of booze and drugs in order to pull himself together enough to simply go through the motions of his life, he is suffering from an ever-worsening case of tinnitus and not even the thrill of performing his music for his fans is able to cut through the torpor that now defines his life anymore. One night, following another by-the-numbers concert at another sold-out enormodome, he runs out of booze in his limo and abandons it to slip into the first bar that he can find. This happens to be a drag bar where the featured performer—the only female and the only one who is not lip-syncing—turns out to be Ally (Lady Gaga), a waitress who slays the crowd with her rendition of “La Vie en Rose.” In the middle of the number, their eyes meet and. . . well, if she weren’t already singing “La Vie en Rose,” it would almost certainly be swelling on the soundtrack at that point.
After the show, he meets up with her backstage and takes her out for the night, an excursion that finds her getting into a brawl in a cop bar and confessing that she has all but put her dreams of musical stardom aside—too many record company weasels like her sound but not her oddball look and while a prolific songwriter, she is loathe to sing her own tunes in public. At the end of the night—well, morning—Jackson is off to another gig and Ally returns to the home she shares with her dad (played by, of all people, Andrew Dice Clay) and what she presumes will be nothing more than memories of one strange night. That all changes when Jackson flies her out to his show and then unexpectedly brings her up on stage in front of thousands of people to sing one of her songs, a moment that makes her an overnight star when clips of the impromptu performance go viral.
You pretty much known the rest from here. Recognizing the obvious chemistry between them, both on and off the stage, Jackson and Ally begin a romantic relationship and at about the same time that soon culminates in marriage, the hype that begins to develop around Abby as a result of the video has the record companies clamoring to make a deal. At first, Jackson is happy with Ally’s instant success but he feels a certain amount of resentment over how quickly she is embraced by the public that spills out when he derides her for her more overtly pop-oriented music. While his career continues on the same level as before, hers shoots into the stratosphere and sends him back to self-medication in a big way leading to a hideously embarrassing moment for Jackson during Ally’s moment of triumph at the Grammys. After that, he genuinely tries to pull himself together and succeeds for a while until the demons come back, culminating in the inevitable sequence of heartbreak, tragedy and—Spoiler Alert—a climactic performances from “Mrs. Ally Maine.”
Presumably recognizing that the basic plot of “A Star is Born” has delivered time and again for over 80 years, Cooper has wisely resisted the urge to mess with the fundamental elements of the storyline in any significant way. At the same time, however, one needs to figure out ways to freshen up the story for contemporary audiences. In remaking the 1937 original, which dealt with an over-the-hill actor and an ingenue, George Cukor wisely took advantage of Judy Garland’s talents as an actress and as a singer by making the character a double threat as well. On the other hand, the 1976 version tried to make things more modern by placing it in the frenzied world of the rock music industry—a not-bad idea that it then throughly sabotaged by casting two singers who, while undeniably accomplished, were anything but rockers. In bringing the story up to date, Cooper and co-writers Eric Roth and Will Fetters have certainly improved on the 1976 version—not exactly the most insurmountable of bars—but still stumbles here and there. Shooting at authentic locations ranging from Coachella to the “SNL” stage, Cooper does an effective job of conveying the heady rush that comes from being in the center of the action, even if it is a sensation that Jackson has long ceased to recognize himself. On the other hand, the film doesn’t really have much to say about the current state of the music industry as a whole—while there are any number of issues that could come under the microscope, the film seems content to have the dark side of the industry represented entirely by a single record company weasel (Ravi Gavron) who frankly could have come directly out of the Streisand version without requiring anything in the way of a rewrite. I’m not saying that the film needed to be a searing expose of the industry but my guess is that most viewers, weaned on the Internet and magazines like “Rolling Stone” and “Entertainment Weekly,” might have appreciated the additional sense of verisimilitude.
The most awkward aspect of the film in this regard is in its oddly retrograde attitude towards pop music. When Ally first starts singing with Jackson, it is the same kind of country-rock sound that he has been doing on his own. However, once she gets signed to do her own music, she is immediately cast into a pop princess mode complete with goofball costumes and stage shows in which the music ranks in importance behind the glitz and the elaborate choreography. It all looks like a joke, of course, and leads to Jackson cruelly telling Ally about how terrible it is and how she is wasting her talent on that kind of junk. And yet, while pop music may well be silly and sunny and oftentimes eminently disposable, at its best—such as the works of people like Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and, yes, Lady Gaga herself—it can cut just as deeply and powerfully as more putatively serious genres of music and can say just as much to listeners when all is said and done. If nothing else, the poppier songs that we hear Ally perform certain sound more convincing than Jackson’s tunes, which sound more like refried Blake Shelton than anything else. As old as the story as a whole may be, that is the aspect of the film that feels the most retrograde.
In taking on such a massive undertaking for his first directorial effort (he was originally slated to simply act in a version that was to be directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Beyonce), Cooper has wisely surrounded himself with an array of enormously talented people on both sides of the camera and given them plenty of room to do their respective things. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who has worked extensively with Darren Aronofsky in the past, is equally adept at expanding the vistas so that we can fully grasp the immense size of the concert scenes and contracting them in the more intimate moments between Abby and Jackson that signifies both their togetherness and their increasing isolation from the outside world as the result of their celebrity. Editor Jay Cassidy likewise does an excellent job of pulling together the familiar material in unusual ways that make it seem fresher than it has any real right to be. On the acting front, Cooper has pulled in a lot of top-notch people to fill out the cast and all of them are solid. Sam Elliott is at his Sam Elliottest as Jackson’s long-long-suffering brother/road manager. Dave Chappelle makes a nice appearance as a friend of Jackson’s who turns up at a key moment to lend some words of sage advice. Cooper’s former “Alias” costars Ron Rifkin and Greg Gruberg turn up in small but effective roles. One of the most surprising performances on display comes from, of all people, Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father, a guy who once had musical dreams of his own that he has hoped would one day be fulfilled via his daughter. How good is he, you may ask. Even though I knew he was in the movie, it was only after he had been on screen for a couple of minutes that it finally clicked for me that it was him that I had been watching. Granted, the notion of Clay as an effective actor is nothing new—his dramatic performance in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” was one of the few completely convincing elements of that film—but his work here is so good that I hope that casting people sit up and take notice of his work so that he can get more parts.
However, the best thing about this version of “A Star is Born,” the element that more than lives up to all of the hype, is the performance by Lady Gaga. You will notice that I said “performance” rather than “presence” because while a lot of music stars making the transition to film might have been content to simply coast on their undeniable charisma, as singers ranging from Elvis Presley to Madonna have done in the past, Gaga turns in an honest-to-goodness and deeply felt acting turn in which she is as strong and convincing in the smaller character-driven moments between Ally and Jackson. She is exceptionally strong in a couple of early scenes in which she talks about her difficulties breaking through into the music scene—my guess is that those moments are more than a little autobiographical and resonate in a way that the more melodramatic bits never come close to equalling. What is even better about her performance is that it helps to at least partially correct the one flaw that all the different versions of “A Star is Born” have had in common. That problem is that the story asks us to believe in a raw newcomer who becomes an overnight sensation once her talents are discovered but the other versions have hedged their bets by casting huge stars whose talents are well-known instead of bringing in a newcomer to let us share in the discovery. Of course, Gaga’s singing talents are obvious but we still get a similar sense of discovery by the revelation that she is a strong actress as well. As for the musical moments, she delivers time and again with her “La Vie en Rose” cover and “Shallow” being show-stoppers in the best possible sense of the phrase.“A Star is Born” is nowhere near as great as some of the hype would lead you to believe—the Judy Garland version beats it like a gong and even the 1937 take is a better work when all is said and done. It runs too long for its own good, it is more than a little shaky when it comes to the passing of time (it feels as if Ally releases her first record and scores her Grammy nominations in the course of a single week) and while Cooper acquits himself behind the camera, he is less successful in front of it (his deliberately lowered voice feels like an affectation, he is not entirely plausible as a famous singer and the big scene in which he embarrasses himself at the Grammys feels more like an outtake from “The Hangover” than anything else. That said, it is a good, solid entertainment with a performance by Lady Gaga that actually is as good as you have been hearing. The story may be more than a little hoary but at its best moments—and there are enough of them to be found here—it reminds you that just because something is old and predictable does not mean that it cannot also be entertaining and ultimately satisfying as well.
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