Movie Review – A Star Is Born (2018)
This is now the fourth version of this film. It’s the fifth depending on if you count George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood (1932). The original was in 1937, featuring Janet Gaynor. The second was in 1954 with Judy Garland. The third came out in 1976 and starred Barbra Streisand. The first two versions were about an aspiring actress. The 1976 version was about an aspiring singer. This one is more a take on that bicentennial film, but even if it weren’t a remake, it would be a remake. Even if this was the first of this specific story, it wouldn’t be the first.
So many films about Hollywood and about actors and singers are in existence, like The Artist (2011) and La La Land (2016), that nothing here feels original. Instead, what is here to enjoy are the acting and the musical performances. Director Bradley Cooper, in his feature debut, wields the camera and encourages performances in a way that feels like a mix or something in between the two filmmakers who directed him to four Oscar nominations. Cooper has clearly learned and absorbed much from Clint Eastwood and David O. Russell, and both those directors shine through Cooper.
If I’m critical of the film, I’m critical of either the screenplay or the editing. The script is based on the previous versions. Cooper himself is credited with writing the script, as well as Will Fetters, but the main writer appears to be Oscar-winner Eric Roth (Forrest Gump and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Roth is a good writer, excellent in fact, but his script seems lacking. It might not be lacking, but simply the editor, Jay Cassidy (American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook), choosing to focus on the more obvious things.
Cooper stars as Jackson Mane, a country rock star who’s probably comparable to someone like Toby Keith, Tim McGraw or Kenny Chesney. One night after a concert he gets his driver to stop at a drag bar where he meets a female artist with whom instantly he’s attracted and think is an incredible singer-songwriter. He then strongly encourages her to pursue her art with him. He takes her on tour where they have a whirlwind romance. After a while, her fame and popularity rise, leaving him to get lost in his alcoholism, causing him to spiral out of control and into bad places.
Of course, plenty of films deal with alcoholism. This one is carried mostly through Cooper’s performance, which is layered with his manner of speech, the way he hangs his head due to his character’s tinnitus and even the way he walks. Combined together, they sell this man’s deterioration in such a heartbreaking way. His scenes opposite Sam Elliott (We Were Soldiers and Road House), who plays Jackson’s older brother Bobby, indicate what might be fueling his behavior. However, it’s through this relationship that reveals how the script is lacking. Both Cooper and Elliott are great at being gruff and showing how there is this tension between these two brothers that can’t always be verbalized, but the movie could have conveyed more of the dynamics or history there.
Lady Gaga co-stars as Ally, a waitress at some restaurant. She moonlights at a bar filled with drag queens. She’s a great singer but has been discouraged because music executives say she doesn’t have the right look. This is another aspect of the script that I feel is failing, or it comes off as a remnant from the 1976 version. Yes, the music industry like other industries can be sexist and superficial. And yes, there are gatekeepers who are sexist and superficial, but the film seems ignorant of the Internet and social media and the numerous ways around those gatekeepers.
The implication is that whatever gatekeepers Ally has encountered and even to some extent her father, played by Andrew Dice Clay (Blue Jasmine), have lowered her self-esteem or have hindered any impetus she would have to pursue her art. With the reaction she gets from the drag queens and even her best friend Ramon, played by Anthony Ramos (She’s Gotta Have It), one would think Ally should have more confidence at least to have her own YouTube channel. Or, you would think someone would have recorded her on an iPhone and made her a viral star long before Jackson came around.
Ally makes a big deal about her nose and that being the disqualifying aspect. She makes an underlined point of it, which in reality we know isn’t a valid point or one she wouldn’t easily overcome with her talent. It’s a moot point about her nose, but the fact she doesn’t realize it until Jackson tells her so underscores the criticism that she needed affirmation from a hetero-normative, male, love interest and that she couldn’t get that affirmation from herself or from her queer circle of friends. This criticism goes to a sense of anti-feminism, which neither Cooper nor Roth nor anyone involved possess. Arguably, this anti-feminism point is a throwback to the 1976, 1954 or 1937 film, which probably was imbued with a kind of Cinderella fairy tale.
A better version of this is Dreamgirls (2006), which is set in the 1960’s and features Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson as Effie White, a girl who is denied stardom because of her looks. No one comments on the size of her nose but one can imagine commenting on other parts of her body, if not the whole thing being too big. Effie and other black artists in that film also had racism working against them. Despite those barriers of entry, Effie didn’t need a man’s approval or blessing. Effie is a more feminist expression than Ally.
However, I get that foremost on this film’s mind isn’t feminism or female empowerment per se. This film is about love and romance, and taking that love and romance to dark and ugly places, as well as messy places. Some will likely get choked up by the depressing and sentimental ending, designed for maximum impact. I was instead more moved during a scene several minutes prior.
Ally asks Jackson who goes into rehab if he wants to come home. Their awkward exchange hints that she believes she’s to blame for his alcoholism getting worse. He misinterprets what she means, but without saying it, they play so many emotions. In it, the delicacy was extremely affecting that surprisingly moved me to tears.
The soundtrack is fantastic. Three songs in particular could each be nominated for Best Song. Either could win. “Shallow” is triumphant, a strong duet for Cooper and Gaga. “Always Remember Us This Way” is more in line with the pop songs normally from Gaga, and “I’ll Never Love Again” is heartbreaking and puts Gaga on the level of Whitey Houston’s performance of the signature track from The Bodyguard (1992).
Rated R for language, some sexuality, nudity and substance abuse.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 16 mins.