Film Review: A Star Is Born

A Star Is Rebooted In Familiar Musical Melodrama

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
A Star is Born
No “Bad Romance” for Cooper and Gaga
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If we’re being completely honest, A Star is Born was a hackneyed “showbiz meller” (as Variety magazine used to call them) when it first saw the light of the silver screen way back in 1932. (That original version was called What Price Hollywood? and was directed by the legendary George Cukor.) The same can be said when it was remade under the new title A Star Is Born in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. Still true when it was remade again in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason (and directed, again, by Cukor). Also when it was remade in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Now that we’re staring down a fifth Hollywood version (with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper), the fact remains. This tale of a faded musical icon who discovers a talented young ingénue, mentors her, falls in love and then becomes despondent when her star eclipses his own is a familiar cliché. That doesn’t necessarily rob any version of its own particular pleasures. After all, you can’t go too wrong with a good song and a good cry. Thankfully, the 2018 revamp of the age-old entertainment industry story offers up a respectable number of un-guilty pleasures before succumbing to its manipulative emotions and unabashedly old-fashioned drama.

Our most recent take on the timeworn tale is co-written by, directed by and stars Bradley Cooper—who’s given consistent-if-bland performances in
Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, and is probably best known for his straight-guy work in the Hangover films. Cooper is Jackson Maine, a road-weary, gravel-voiced country-rock star who reads like a cross between Jackson Browne, Neil Young and Kurt Cobain. He’s still pulling in big audiences at stadium venues, but his heart just isn’t in it anymore. He’s losing his hearing due to tinnitus and drowning his fears in every bottle of booze he can get his hands on. One night, after a concert, he convinces his limo driver to stop at the nearest bar. That bar just happens to be a drag venue where singing waitress Ally (Lady Gaga) is performing a showstopping rendition of “La Vie en Rose.” (A nice nod to Gaga’s queer fan base.) Enraptured by her powerful voice and no-nonsense personality, Jackson invites her into his limo for a whirlwind night of bonding and romance.

Days later, star-struck Ally is shuffled onto a private jet and dropped off at Jackson’s latest concert. With a great deal of cajoling, he convinces the shy amateur to come out on stage and sing a song she’s been composing. The resulting duet becomes a viral sensation, leaving fans clamoring for more. As Jackson’s concert tour proceeds, and Ally surrenders to her new life on the road, she becomes a bigger and bigger part of his live show. In what feels like far too short a time, Ally is snapped up by a record company and transformed from a Sheryl Crow-like singer-songwriter to a glitter-covered, stage-humping Britney Spears clone. This, of course, triggers Jackson’s jealousy and self-doubt, which sends him further down the rocky road of drinks and drugs.

Like the 1976 cover version, 2018’s
A Star is Born sticks to the popular music industry, rather than the world of motion pictures. (And, as a bonus, they didn’t even need to rewrite Barbra Streisand’s nose jokes for Gaga.) Like the previous iterations, the best part of this one is the luminous central star. Lady Gaga (or Stefani Germanotta, if you prefer) proves herself an amazing stripped-down singer, and her acting skills are commensurate. She comes off a bit like Madonna in her first role, Desperately Seeking Susan. She shows off the same New York street charm, the same tough attitude, the same unconcealed charisma. Hopefully—having started out her career as an oversized parody of pop divas—Gaga can stick with this new, more down-to-earth version of herself. It looks good on her. Weirdly, the film agrees, reserving its criticism for the overly made-up, dancefloor-friendly (and far more familiar-looking) version of Gaga’s character. Amazingly—in either musical persona—she doesn’t outshine Cooper too much. Turns out he’s a credible, Southern-fried folk-rock singer. The onstage collaborations between him and his costar are an electrifying highlight. (Much of the authentic-looking footage was shot live at Coachella and Stagecoach.)

Unfortunately, the film’s first half is better than its second half. When it’s all sweaty romance and catchy tunes and dreams come true,
A Star Is Born soars. The relaxed, getting-to-know-one-another, letting-their-guard down scenes between Cooper and Gaga have a palpable spark. But Cooper leans a bit too hard into the story’s inherent melodrama. The glum second half bogs down quite a bit, throwing in some clunky plot machinations, a few whiplash character changes and a whole lot of blatant tear-jerking. At 2 hours and 15 minutes, it’s got a few too many verses. Still, it’s not as self-serving as the overly indulgent Streisand version (2 hours and 19 minutes, that one). As a first-time filmmaker, Cooper has got a lot of great instincts. He clearly prefers story to sizzle, which is good. But when those instincts slip up—as they do in the film’s overwrought climax—they’re rather glaring.

If the idea of leaving a romantic drama with a tune stuck in your head and a bunch of wet tissues wadded into your fist sounds like fun, then
A Star Is Born will deliver all that you’re craving and then some. It’s a doggedly familiar tune, but it’s one that’s been given a softhearted, sympathetic remix for the “American Idol” generation.
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