A Star is Born
A shoe-in for Best Picture Oscar? Perhaps not, since it will have to beat at very least Roma and First Man to claim the prize, but this latest version of A Star is Born still comes laden with more acclaim than the previous three versions put together (and that’s with a Best Picture nod for the 1937 original). While the film doesn’t quite reach the consistent heights suggested by the majority of critics, who have evacuated their adjectival bowels lavishing it with superlatives, it’s undoubtedly a remarkably well-made, commendably acted piece. And perhaps even more notably, it only rarely feels like its succumbing to just how familiar this tale of rise to, and parallel fall from, stardom has become.
Indeed, one of the areas Warner Bros and MGM can probably bank on is that vast swathes of the audience will know the basic premise but probably not have seen any of the earlier versions. Considering the property is such a tried-and-tested no-brainer, it’s taken a remarkably long time for this iteration to reach the screen.
The last take was more than forty years ago (and was only beaten at the box office that year by Rocky), and the hugely expensive 1954 version, a slim 22 years prior to that, was in the Top Ten for its year. But one thing the ’76 version wasn‘t was critically acclaimed, and Clint’s patchy directorial touch didn’t exactly invite confidence when this latest update was first announced in 2011 (it initially had Beyoncé attached). Then the untested Bradley Cooper taking it on, for starring, directing and (co-) writing duties gave pause for entirely different reasons. That he’s succeeded, and with a largely untested co-star, is all the more impressive (no doubting her consummate stage presence, but American Horror Story wasn’t necessarily the first port of call for evidencing ability to run a gamut of emotions).
Somehow, though, it almost all comes together. Cooper, with Eric Roth and Will Fetters, cherry picks the 1954 and 1976 screenplays (most notably, the music scene setting is all from the latter, with earlier movies focussing on a budding actress), but there’s little sense of this being a cut-and-paste exercise. That’s probably at least in part due to the keen eye Cooper has for verisimilitude. In the concert scenes, we’re right there on stage with the performers, and in the relationship scenes, we’re up close and personal, the director knowing the value of uninterrupted, raw, intimate detail (he and Gaga have strong chemistry).
Indeed, I knew the guy could act, but there’s been nothing hitherto (and I’m well aware of his three Oscar noms for acting) that gets this revealing. Cooper’s functional alcoholic performance as Jackson Maine put me in mind of Nic Cage in Leaving Las Vegas at several points – albeit, for all Jackson’s downward spiral, A Star is Born never revels in its misery quite the way that movie does – by way of voice coaching from Jeff Bridges (but more intelligible). It’s like he ate twenty packs of cigarettes doused in whisky for breakfast every morning to prepare for the part. Cooper acutely captures – with subtly amidst the more attention-grabbing crutches – Jack’s pure vision for shepherding Ally’s talent and the tip into jealousy and self-ruination that follows.
Lady Gaga, despite playing the title character, isn’t granted quite the same degree of depth and exploration as Ally moves from waitress ingenue and victim of nosephobia to sudden star and then reactive wife. In the first half of the picture – the virtually flawless part – we feel there’s equal weight to the experiences of both, particular when it comes to scenes such as her nerve-wracking first stage appearance with Jackson (it might be the most deliriously audience-friendly scene here). But later, the focus seems to slip into following Jack’s response to her fame and attempts to undermine it, consciously or otherwise (the marriage proposal being the last attempt to grasp something slipping away from him).
One might see that as function of her career, and the choices made for her, getting away from her, but there doesn’t seem much room for Ally amidst the boozy BF/hubby and choreographed dance moves. One might suggest Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta is simply essaying a more innocent, directionless version of Lady Gaga (which, to the character’s credit, means there’s no spirit cooking involved), in the same way Eminem made such an impact in 8 Mile, but she can’t do more than the material gives her, which isn’t, ultimately, an identity separate to Jackson.
Most of the issues I have with the movie relate to the back end, once longueurs set in and the initial dramatic tension dissipates somewhat. If there’s little sense of where Jackson stands as a county-and-western legend, there’s even less of a feel for Ally’s meteoric rise. To a degree, I suspect that’s intentional on Cooper’s part. It comes from the same impulse that puts us on stage with the performer, rather than in the crowd watching, but it also makes her success come across as slightly insular and inauthentic; we have a reference to YouTube hits, an appearance on Saturday Night Live, and then the Grammys debacle. And that’s it.
Added to which, aside from Shallow, the transporting first duet, none of the songs have much impact. Indeed, the only plus point of the “Jackson-remembered” montage accompanying Ally’s final power ballad I’ll Never Love Again is that it’s so much better and more heartfelt when Cooper delivers the first draft unaccompanied on piano. It also seems like a glaring omission that there’s no scene where Jackson’s afflicting tinnitus is mentioned to or by Ally, such that we don’t know if he was keeping it from her. Or, if he wasn’t, what she thought about it.
The supporting cast are generally great. Sam Elliott is majestically moving as Jack’s older brother (an addition to this version that lends it just a hint of The Fabulous Baker Boys, with the more talented younger sibling). He’s also his manager (just witness him tearing up when Jackson tells him it was always him, and not their father, that he idolised). Andrew Dice Clay is marvellously small-minded but big-hearted as Ally’s dad, Anthony Ramos likeable as her more ebullient best pal tagging along during the opening act, and Dave Chappelle – or his clone – is very winning in a small but mood-lifting role as Jack’s childhood pal.
There has to be a bum note, though, and Rafi Gavron’s hissable music producer is so unutterably repellent, from the first moment we meet him, that everything he does later is telegraphed. It might have been more astute to make him a snake in sheep’s clothing, or give him a modicum of charm (Ray Liotta was reportedly in talks at one point, and he could do that, but really, you want someone who’ll surprise when they finally stick the knife in).
There’s also Jackson’s final exit, which doesn’t quite work for me. Not his reaching that point, although, while I know pissing yourself on stage at the Grammys is a no-no, it isn’t like anyone watches the show any more, right? Rather, he’s sitting in his car, about to drive to her gig loaded, and he stops himself. Presumably because he thought, “No, running off the road and crashing would be too much like Kristofferson”. And, while walking into the ocean à la James Mason would have been very poetic – doing anything like James Mason would be very poetic – he didn’t have one handy.
What a blessed relief then, that he was able to draw on that Chekov’s Conversation with his counsellor at the rehab clinic a few scenes back – better late than never – about his attempted teen suicide. The garage rafters it is for a re-enactment, then. It didn’t feel earned to me – not that a movie suicide should be earned in the glorifying sense – and more like a decision reached for want of a better alternative.
Given how audiences are proven suckers for a doomed love story, it’s a wonder studios don’t attempt to strike gold in that hill more often. This one will probably run and run at cinemas – with the additional attraction of two decades of reality TV talent shows fuelling it – but whereas in most cases, it’s easy scoff at unearned and cheap recourse to emotional clichés, A Star is Born is the rare example that traverses familiar terrain yet largely surmounts the obstacles in its path. Of course, the future could go either way for Bradley, if another actor-cum-director’s Oscar-winning career is born (see Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson on the one hand, and Clint, Redford and Warren on the other).