The new update of A Star Is Born almost—almost—makes the 1976 Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson version look like a coherent movie. And that, my friends, takes some doing.
You know A Star Is Born: fully ripened Hollywood melodrama, usually served with music. A well-established star, struggling with sobriety, romances an unknown talent and watches her career outrun his. Joy holds hands with tragedy, because as somebody once said, love is never as soft as an easy chair.
Yes, that Oscar-winning song (“Evergreen”) came from the Streisand Star Is Born, which was preceded by the Judy Garland 1954 version, which was preceded by a trimmer, non-musical film in 1937 with Janet Gaynor. There was also a 1932 film, What Price Hollywood, with a very similar story. This is a formula that works. In this case, the established star is played by Bradley Cooper, who also directed and co-wrote the film. He plays Jackson Maine, a gravel-voiced country-rock singer who likes gin and cocaine. He also likes the waitress, Ally (Lady Gaga), he discovers singing “La Vie en Rose” in a drag club one night. Enchanted by her innocence, he hauls her into the limelight.
It will not surprise you to learn that she blows up. He continues to drink. They get a dog. He drunkenly embarrasses her the night she triumphs at the Grammys. Things can only go in one direction.
Previous versions of the story have emphasized the woman’s point of view; not this one. We get a lot of Jackson Maine’s charged feelings about his older brother (Sam Elliott), his disgust with the music business, and other angst that never gets articulated. Cooper is a fine actor, but he’s so wrapped inside Jackson’s coiled energy (and his imitation of Elliott’s growly voice) you rarely get a look at the human being there. Which leaves us with Lady Gaga, who becomes the main reason to see the film. Vertically challenged but with a set of rafter-rattling pipes, Ally is credible as an unlikely star, and Gaga makes the most of her first big movie role. She’s engaging and fresh, even when enduring one of Jackson’s lectures about how she must retain her artistic purity (he chastises her about having back-up dancers—a serious error in judgment on his part, if you ask me). I kept wanting to break in and tell him to let the woman have a little fun.
As filmmaker, Cooper’s leisurely approach builds no momentum, and the non-musical scenes meander as the actors (apparently) improvise in close-up. This isn’t storytelling as much as it is a work-shopped series of behaviors. The songs tend toward the generic, which means they should garner a few Oscar nominations. The cast includes Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s stereotypical goombah dad (armed with a single endlessly repeated joke about him being a better singer than Sinatra); Dave Chappelle as Jackson’s old pal, who dispenses magic wisdom about how superior non-stardom is to stardom; and Rafi Gavron as an evil showbiz manager. He’s the one who suggests having back-up dancers, the swine.
A Star Is Born is a major fall release and already an Oscar front-runner, if the touts are correct. I hope they’re not; I’d like to believe Hollywood can do better than this lukewarm brew. But thank goodness for Gaga.
A Star Is Born
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