Movie Review: Romantic Drama/Musical – A Star is Born
Directed by Bradley Cooper
Starring Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Eliot, and Andrew Dice Clay
*Common Knowledge Spoilers*
I’ve always found it curious that the original tearjerker, A Star is Born, has inspired a remake nearly every generation since its 1937 release. The old-fashioned story of a gifted young actress wannabe, (portrayed by Oscar’s first best actress winner, Janet Gaynor), who falls in love with, is guided to stardom by, and eclipses the fame of, a famous alcoholic actor, (the great Frederic March), has somehow managed to resonate with audiences every 20 years or so. The one curious exception is gen-xer’s, who never got their own version (regretful thoughts of Whitney and Bobby abound). But why this film? There are plenty of other compelling love stories in Hollywood’s past that seem ripe for modernization (the Bette Davis classics, Now Voyager and Dark Victory come to mind). But something about its dual stories of the rise of one career and the fall of another in the celebrity dream world of the entertainment industry has continued to capture the imaginations of succeeding generations. Maybe it’s the school-girl fantasy of a simple farm girl realizing her dreams and becoming a star that attracts the largely female fanbase of these films. Or maybe it’s the pre-feminist romantic notion of standing by the man you love regardless of how much he hurts you, a concept that seems woefully out of sync with the times.
The first remake, the 1954 musical version with Judy Garland and James Mason, has long been considered by many to be the best. While the insipid 1976 Barbara Streisand vanity project, set in the music world and co-starring Kris Kristofferson as the ill-fated rock star, easily qualifies as the worst. Bradley Cooper’s new version of the tale, in which he stars with current diva extraordinaire, Lady Gaga, is everything the 1976 version wanted to be but fell miserably short of. It’s an emotionally involving crowd-pleaser, brimming with exciting musical numbers and given vigorous life by two engaging lead performances.
The story of the four films is divided into two parts: the joyous crescendo of courtship and the diva’s rise to stardom, and the precipitous fall of a once great star. In Cooper’s film, it’s the first part of the story that shines brightest. Cooper plays Jackson Maine, an alcoholic, drug addicted country-rock performer coasting off past successes and well past his musical prime. Cooper, who’s only 43, looks considerably older here, his face weathered and wrinkled, his nose red, his hair and beard unkempt. And somehow his voice has lowered a good octave or more. (Are these really the same vocal chords that voiced Rocket Raccoon?) It resonates with a gorgeous, rock solid, country music star bass that sounds surprisingly like the voice of his costar, Sam Eliot, who plays Jack’s tireless, adult-babysitter brother who thanklessly cleans up Jack’s nightly embarrassments and scolds him about wearing the ear protection meant to stop his rapidly progressing hearing loss.
One night after a show, while Jack is en route by limousine to the next night’s gig, he stops by a bar in an unfamiliar town, having emptied his last fifth of whiskey and desiring more. The bar, it turns out, is a drag bar and it’s there that he sees a local waitress named Ally (Lady Gaga) performing the Edith Piaf classic “La Vie en Rose.” He’s immediately smitten by her. (The setting of this scene in a drag bar serves as an appropriate shout out to the LGBT community that has so passionately embraced and been embraced by the superstar songstress.) Unlike many similar scenes in movie history, it’s not just one of those bland musical performances that enchant the characters in a film but fail to connect to the movie audience. It’s a musical moment to compete with the best of them. We’re talking Judy Garland singing “Get Happy” in Summer Stock or Lena Horne singing the title song in Stormy Weather. Lady Gaga’s pop records typically don’t interest me. I find many of them overproduced and overly slick. But to anyone who’s seen and heard her perform at the piano or in front of an orchestra or performing duets with legendary crooner Tony Bennett, there’s no questioning her astounding range as a singer and her emotive power as a performer. Best of all, “La Vie en Rose” isn’t even the movie’s musical high point. That comes later.
After her performance, the two spend the night together connecting in a grocery store parking lot where Jack gently coaxes Ally into singing one of her own songs and is immediately convinced of her creative and expressive gifts as a songwriter. Conveyed with sincerity and lack of pretense by the two actors, this is the film’s loveliest scene. Jack tries to convince Ally to let him fly her to his next show, but she initially declines, questioning his motives and fearful it may lead to the musical career both she and her father (a bald and almost unrecognizable Andrew Dice Clay) have long dreamed of. When she finally accepts the offer, Jack surprises her by pulling the reluctant Ally on stage to sing the song of which she sang but a single verse, refrain and chorus in the parking lot. In one of those old Hollywood clichés befitting the original film, Jack and his bandmates have worked out a full arrangement, unheard bridge and all, and performs a flawless duet of the song with her, resulting in enthusiastic exultations from the crowd. But the contrivances of the situation are easily forgotten because the song, the country rock ballad “Shallow,” is not only memorable, the performance is among the most electrifying and believable fake-live musical numbers I’ve ever seen in a movie. It’s immediate and exhilarating, and like all the film’s musical numbers, seamlessly integrated into the narrative. Cooper sings surprisingly well and if anyone doubts that Lady Gaga can sing rock-and-roll, this is all the proof one needs.
As a novice director, Cooper, aided by his editor Jay Cassidy, tells the story with an authentic visual flair without bringing unwanted attention to his technique, an admirable combination, though there is an annoying reliance during Jack’s initial musical performance, on shaking the camera back and forth on his guitar at breakneck speed which creates a dizzying trail effect. The effect is justifiable creatively, in that it suggests the manic energy of his music and perhaps, his inebriated state, but its overuse makes it look like an attempt at disguising Cooper’s guitar playing. He reportedly spent a year of intensive training on the instrument, but maybe he couldn’t quite get it together on this one. The world may never know.
It’s in the declining-rock-star second half of the film that it loses some of it steam as the sappier elements of the story take over. All four American versions of the story (there is a Bollywood version as well) contain a key scene in which the heroine wins the top industry award for her profession (Oscars, Grammys) only to be humiliated on stage by their stuttering, stammering, thoroughly hammered husbands. Here the humiliation is decidedly worse than in the previous films to the point of being uncomfortable and it makes Ally’s undying devotion to him harder to fathom. “It’s not your fault, it’s a disease,” she tells him. That’s true enough, but you have to wonder what it’s going to take to get this girl to wise up and bail, or for that matter why she even entered a relationship with him in the first place, given that she knew from the beginning he was a drunk. This suggests she’s had ulterior, career-related motives all along, particularly when she abandons the deeply personal songs that Jack first loved in favor of the emptier pop sound that propels her to fame. But if that’s the case, it’s hard to believe she’d stay with him after the nearly career-derailing Grammy disaster.
The film’s tragic ending lacks the emotional weight one would have expected, but the soapier aspects of the final half are held together by Cooper, Eliot, and Lady Gaga. But when the dust finally settles, it’s Gaga who owns the night. If her Emmy winning performance in American Horror Story seemed like a fluke, get over it. Expect an Oscar nomination for best actress and very possibly a win. A Star is Born will almost certainly increase her already superstar status as well as the respect she commands from her musical and now acting peers. Oscar audiences got a taste of those gifts with her splendid Sound of Music medley two years back. (Stephen Sondheim’s unfair comments be damned, genius that he is). This new A Star is Born delivers high octane entertainment on its own merit, but the glorious Ms. Gaga could have effortlessly carried it on her own had it been necessary. She’s a veritable nuclear explosion of talent. To glow in the light of her radiation is to be obliterated by joy.