About 10 minutes into A Star is Born—that is to say, the 2018 Bradley Cooper-directed A Star is Born—country rock superstar Jackson Maine (Cooper) explains to his love-at-first-sight (and soon to be muse) date Ally (Lady Gaga) something very important. Drunk, but conjuring up a moment of lucidity, he points around at the patrons of the bar. “Everyone in this bar is talented at one thing or another,” he says. But Ally. Ally has something to say. And that means something. That’s bigger than just being talented.
With this line, Cooper both encapsulates the entire film and reveals its biggest flaw. A Star is Born is certainly talented at one thing or another. But I don’t know if it has a whole lot to say. At the very least, what it has to say it says outright. It is not a withholding film.
Perhaps this is not the worst trait for a film of this nature to have. The intellectual property is proof of the timelessness of this tale, so why should the script weigh itself down with a more subtextual preoccupation? This is the fourth A Star is Born film, and the original 1937 film was more or less a remake of 1932’s What Price Hollywood?. Not to mention the rags-to-riches trope has been the subject of so much pop culture since pop culture became a term.
On the flip side, why remake the same narrative with the same name for the third time if there is nothing new to say about it? For the music? Sure, but that’s what concept albums are for. To jumpstart the transition from actor to director? Sure, and Cooper doesn’t slouch under the weight of that responsibility. But why not use your clout for a fresh idea?
Either way you look at it, A Star is Born is not venturing into the great unknown. It is staying nice and cozy in its bubble of stardom. For better and for worse.
In this version of the tale, Lady Gaga portrays the diamond in the rough talent that is stumbled upon by the musical behemoth with power and leverage and plenty of demons (namely drink and pills). Ally sings as part of a drag show. After meeting Jackson and spending a drunken evening with him, she sings him a song that blows him away. Suddenly, she is whisked into stardom. Hence the title.
My personal mileage with the A Star is Born adaptations don’t amount to much (quickly: the 1937 feels like a standard showbiz picture of the era with a cracker jack wit, the 1954 is a long-winded epic with some extraordinary numbers and a tour de force performance from Garland, and the 1976 is as blatantly messy as Kris Kristofferson’s washed up character). As such, excitement for 2018’s re-up wasn’t high.
That said, Cooper’s take holds its own against the lot. Much more visually dynamic than the other pictures (particularly the exceedingly flat ’76 film), the camera does pull us into the spotlight of Ally’s newfound fame and notoriety. DP Matthew Libatique, perhaps most well-known for his collaborations with Darren Aronofsky and Spike Lee, successfully emulates the on-stage concert experience. When Ally first walks on stage to sing a duet with Jackson, and the lights blind before settling into a comfortable glow, it is the closest one can get to feeling like they are on a concert stage while instead looking at a flat screen.
These scenes are impressive, if not repetitive. As are the instances of Jackson succumbing to the debilitating lows of intoxication. What breaks through the repetitive nature of the film is Lady Gaga, whose performance is the crucial high point of the movie. In that moment, when she walks on stage for the first time, there is something so genuine about her expression. It is pleasant shock, surprise that she has found herself in this unlikely place. It is an expression that could easily be done wrong, telegraphed too strongly. But she sits in that moment with an air of reality that makes the moment almost feel meta-textual.
For someone who has not spent years honing her acting craft, Lady Gaga comes off shockingly comfortable in her performance. Although aided by a narrative that leans on her singing—a skill she has been honing for years that is on full, spectacular display throughout the film—that does not take away from the achievement. There are a few scenes where the naturalism falters, and early on it feels like she is channeling Streisand, but otherwise she makes this movie her own.
Cooper, conversely, is giving a take-him-or-leave-him sort of performance. Grumbling interminably throughout, his entire take on the character is a lack of enunciation. Personally, I found this only slightly distracting, and in certain key scenes he delivers a wallop of emotion. This is particularly true of a pair of scenes that occur back-to-back in a rehab facility. But I can imagine people will go either way on his take.
In this version, Cooper’s character is less of an antagonistic force. He is still a problem, both to himself and others, but whenever he does something problematic through his addiction the plot gives him some sort of easy out. The conflict quickly resolves to tears and making up. The drama doesn’t build necessarily; it just hits bumps in the road.
Thus, the script cycles itself until the simple themes of the film get washed out from overuse. Characters and their backstory don’t seem to factor into the plot, then the script will throw a pointed line in to bring their backstories into focus before moving back into the cycle.
The most prominent example is Jackson’s brother, Bobby (Sam Elliot), who is given about two and a half scenes of intense emotional heft, in what feels like an attempt at pushing Elliot into the Oscar conversation. While Elliot is one of America’s finest and most consistent character actors, and he delivers the hell out of each one of those scenes, his character feels tossed in to add to the drama. Otherwise, it doesn’t really feel like he’s part of the film at all.
And his “Oscar scene,” presented early in the film, feels like a bit much. The drama is dialed up to 11 in a handful of scenes throughout the film, mainly to juxtapose with the more morose scenes that accompany the hangovers and forgiveness. Perhaps this whirlwind of emotions is meant to mimic the turbulent addiction of Jackson Maine. Intense emotional highs come with the buzz. Somber, more tearful lows come with the next day hangover. But the film oscillates its perspective between Jackson and Ally, making this a hard theory to subscribe to.
What can be said in favor of A Star is Born is that the music is sensational. The main songs and their reprises pulsate with emotion and, every once in a while, send shivers down your spine (again, the credit goes to Gaga’s talent).
But the lyricism in these songs is hard to stomach. If the script doesn’t do the job of presenting the plot and themes and simplistic character struggles without any subtext, then the songs will certainly fill in. The songs sound great, but the words are simple explanatory footnotes. They’re like a rudimentary ABAB rhyme scheme; the A is a hammer, and the B is a nail. Hammer, nail. Hammer, nail. Over and over.
They’re far from the shallow now. Get it?
That hammer-nail approach can almost be applied to the entire film. The script makes meals out of its dramatic elements, but the drama doesn’t amount to much. It just props up simple themes of stardom, selling out, washing up, and bottoming out. While this is a safe platform for Gaga to announce herself as an acting talent and Cooper to make his case as a director with promise, it isn’t a platform from which a truly noteworthy movie can emerge.
A Star is Born: B-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)