Gaga and Cooper shine in this ‘A Star Is Born’ rebirth
Directed by: Bradley Cooper
Written by: Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters and Eric Roth
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, and Andrew Dice Clay
“A Star Is Born” – Lady Gaga can act, and Bradley Cooper can sing.
If one takes away anything from director Bradley Cooper’s remake of “A Star Is Born”, it is the aforementioned statement.
Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a famous country singer. How famous? The man cannot walk 20 yards without someone recognizing him, patting him on the back, claiming their fandom, and/or asking for a photo. Jackson has the world by the tail, but not unlike every human, he suffers from flaws, and the biggest is his alcoholism.
After playing before thousands and thousands of fans, Jackson hops into his limo, downs an entire bottle of something stronger than a triple-espresso, asks his driver to stop, steps into a bar to guzzle more drinks, and unexpectedly meets Ally (Lady Gaga), who jumps on stage and sings. With Jackson sitting on a barstool and staring – through a self-induced haze – solely at Ally, she belts out a riveting version of a very celebrated song (which will not be named in this review), and…he…is…hooked. He’s hooked on Ally’s voice and the woman herself, and the two begin their journey as a teacher-apprentice duo in the music industry and gleefully embrace a loving relationship.
Cooper’s movie is the third remake of the 1937 original, but does the world need another “A Star Is Born” film? No, but will millions flock to see it, and is it a worthwhile (and sometimes breathtaking) experience?
Yes and Yes.
The film crew sets up shop in real music venues in front of thousands of people, where Cooper and Gaga perform numerous original songs in country and pop star fashions that will dazzle and delight movie audiences who enjoy big screen theatrics. Cooper keeps the camera on-stage and seemingly within inches of Jackson’s and Ally’s faces, as the film showcases spectacular gushes of sights and sounds.
No question, this movie should be experienced on the big screen.
Calling out the country and pop star distinction is important. This is because Jackson pulls Ally on-stage to croon various duets under a country-guise, but she soon finds her own voice and becomes a pop star sensation.
Ally’s meteoric rise feels a bit implausible, given the dramatically-short number of calendar days that she goes from performing in front of 100 people at a local drag club to infinitely bigger audiences, who embrace her songs like “Look What I Found” and “Why Did You Do That?”
Then again, maybe it’s not that implausible, because just take a quick gander into Lady Gaga’s career. This is exactly why casting Gaga is a remarkably-keen move, and she obviously manages the musical numbers like a pro, but this woman can act as well. Gaga brings an accessible and congenial identity to Ally. Prior to meeting Jackson, Ally’s reservoirs of singer/songwriter gifts remain untapped, because she only dreams within her own spaces. Self-conscious of her looks, she never believed in big stage aspirations, but soon – via Jackson’s encouragement – she acquires faith in herself.
During the first hour of the film’s 2-hour 15-minute runtime, one might wonder if Ally’s experience is autobiographical to Gaga’s own. Whether or not Ally’s on-set encounters are terribly familiar or brand new to Gaga, she is wholly believable as a budding singer/songwriter who is in awe of her new partner, while also finding comfort in her own skin.
(As a side question: Did the script really need Jackson to help shape Ally’s self-worth? Just asking.)
Meanwhile, Cooper’s Jackson only discovers comfort when alcohol and/or drugs reside in his system. In many ways, Jackson resembles Jeff Bridges’ Bad Blake from “Crazy Heart” (2009), and his addiction – predictably – only feeds relationship and career disarray. Jackson does offer a kind humanity, but his judgment frequently delves into cloudy periods of distrust, loneliness and jealousy. Less so jealousy, as he does not envy Ally’s success as much as he misses their connection to the same music.
Jackson’s substance abuse is more prominent than John Norman Howard’s (Kris Kristofferson) from “A Star Is Born” (1976). John’s self-destructive path has a hell-raiser quality of simply living in the moment, like when he jumps on a motorcycle, mindlessly rides it in circles during his concert and inevitably careens off the stage into a twisted heap below.
Despite John’s ragged nature, 1976’s “A Star Is Born” spends more intimate time with John and Esther (Barbra Streisand) as a couple. By design, director Frank Pierson devotes possibly 75 minutes of generous, uninterrupted screen time of John and Esther celebrating their relationship and also coping with his behavior. This allows their connection to resonate with the audience. Even though their careers follow opposing trajectories, Pierson focuses less time on the music and more with John and Esther as a devoted and struggling couple, and hence the film is highly effective in delivering its emotional punches when it counts.
Jackson’s and Ally’s tender romance is also recurrently troubled, and Cooper’s vision drives within the same guardrails as 1976’s “A Star Is Born”. The difference is Cooper spends much of the second hour diving into Ally’s music. Sure, awarding Ally copious amounts of on-screen minutes to learn dance choreography, perform new tracks and deal with the business aspects of the music industry are important to the story. These moments, however, interrupt the soulful flow of the film’s first hour.
Jackson’s and Ally’s struggles become their own as individuals, rather than mutually muddling through their issues together.
Presenting their anxieties separately will frustrate the audience, and this is a deliberate choice. The problem? The emotional payoffs may not resonate the way that they should, because Jackson’s and Ally’s independently-shown career paths encourage detachment…for them and moviegoers.
Even though it has been a long 42 years, no one really needed to give birth to another version of “A Star Is Born”, but the 2018 film shines best during the happier, intimate moments with the leads and their beautiful, dynamic musical numbers.
This film is unquestionably destined for Golden Globe - Musical/Comedy nominations for Best Picture, Actress and Actor, and yes, Gaga and Cooper fans will go gaga (this critic went there) for this movie. Others will appreciate and even love the pomp and circumstance, and the rest will – at a minimum – acknowledge that Lady Gaga can act, and Bradley Cooper can sing.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.