DIRECTED BY

Bradley Cooper

 

STARRING

Bradley Cooper

Lady Gaga

Andrew Dice Clay

Dave Chappelle

Sam Elliott

 

RATED

R

 

RELEASED IN

2018

 

RUNNING TIME

2 Hrs., 15 Mins.

A Star is Born October 12, 2018  

who yearned to headline a stage. Finally, in 1976, Barbra Streisand masqueraded as an unsuccessful saloon star who dreamed of superstardom.

 

In each film, these actresses would serendipitously be discovered by, and then fall in love with, a veteran entertainer with a penchant for the bottle. Respectively, those men were played by Fredric March, James Mason, and Kris Kristofferson, to varying degrees of success. As Janet/Judy/Barbra would become “it" girls practically overnight, Fredric/James/Kris would decline into the annals of addiction.

 

This is a classic Hollywood story. It is a reflection of the age-old idea that one star will always be rendered obsolete while another rises, whether the subjects in question are romantically involved or not. It wonders what is artificial, and what isn’t. It ponders what sacrifices must be made in order to attain deific status early on. It's hokey, sure, but it's usually effective.

 

The new incarnation of A Star is Born, which is co-written, co-produced, and helmed by the actor Bradley Cooper, in his directorial debut, most mimics the aural, stylistic, and emotional grandeur of the 1954 version. But it is missing a certain incorporeal vibrancy: it contains bursts of authentic emotional clarity but is marred by rushed inevitability.

 

It is difficult to tell whether this takeaway has to with the fact that the movie is working with such storied, familiar material, without supplementing much besides modern-day touches, and hush-hush flourishes of meta-commentary. Or if Cooper, simply, is a better quotidian storyteller than he is a tragedian.

 

In the movie, a long-haired and raggedy Cooper stars as Jackson Maine, an old-fashioned rock star who plays his guitar with the passion of Neil Young and sings with the sincerity of Tom Petty. We know little about Jackson fame-wise: no interviews are given, no doctored photos or news stories make way, and no mentions are made of his record sales or his critical standing. But we can assume that he is popular and acclaimed— an endurable throwback that can still headline Coachella. Jackson is unable to revel in his long-standing popularity, though: Depressed and insecure, he is an alcoholic and a prescription-pill abuser. His addiction worsens by the hour.

 

After headlining a rollicking show as the movie opens, Jackson lumbers into his limo, downing the contents of a liquor bottle. This is, however, not enough: he asks his driver to drop him off at the nearest bar. The bar turns out to be a drag club, as well as a soon-to-be-providential meeting place. Tonight, Ally (Lady Gaga), a waitress who used to serve at the boîte, is guest-performing. In kitschy makeup, she belts Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose,” with how-is-she-not-famous mastery, no less. Jackson, who sheds a tear or two once she leaves the stage, is smitten. He asks to meet Ally backstage. The latter is flummoxed — in disbelief that a man like Jackson could ever be interested in her — but friendly.

 

There is a noticeable spark. Jackson and Ally spend the night together, walking, talking. (First, they go out for a drink, then amble around a Walgreens parking lot after a bar fight.) Ally feels comfortable enough to reveal her insecurities. She’s tried to break into the music industry before, but because of her unconventional features, she’s been dependably turned away. “I don’t write my own songs,” she additionally shares. She’s self-conscious, convinced that people don’t want to hear what she has to say.

 

Jackson counters her doubts. He thinks she’s beautiful. He thinks her voice is too powerful to bury. Once Ally decides that she can really trust him, she performs part of a song she’s been writing in her free time. Jackson is enchanted. “Can I tell you a secret?” he asks. “I think you’re a songwriter.”

 

Once Ally returns home in the morning, to a rickety two-story she shares with her father (Andrew Dice Clay), it is clear to us that her time as a nobody waitress who lives with her dad who sometimes sings is almost up. That invisible timer goes off, then, when Jackson invites Ally to sing with him at one of his shows that night. The ensuing performance goes viral. A star is born.

 

In every version of this story, the middle and final acts essentially remain the same. Hero and heroine fall in love; heroine gets big, hero squanders everything away. Anteceding male protagonists were almost villain-like: overcome with envy mid-eclipsing and prone to showing it. By contrast, Jackson is sympathetic. He is tormented by his disaffection, his feeling like Ally’s fame is built on a sham (she trades her no-frills roots for, er, Lady Gaga-esque, dance-centric theatricality eventually), his knowing that his worsening addiction is partly spoiling his lady love’s success.

 

Cooper’s performance is good, but it sidesteps greatness as a result of a sort of inexplicable reserve: there is a necessary rawness missing from his portrayal. His co-writing and directing, in the meantime, is auspicious. The dialogue ranges from unsteadied to clear-eyed, but it’s more often the latter. (Though Cooper's arguably out-of-touch ideas of the music industry are inimical to the movie's seriousness.) The presentation is reminiscent of 1970s vérité, just with hints of old-fangled glamour that help keep it in touch with its forebears.

 

The best thing about A Star is Born, though, is Gaga. This isn’t the first time she’s acted: she’s become a staple on Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story (2011-present) in recent years, and I would argue that the Gaga: Five Foot Two documentary of 2017 featured her giving a performance. Yet A Star is Born feels like a debut. This partially has to do, I think, with how meta the role is: Ally’s rise to the top also comes with a great deal of visual and aural artifice, in a ploy to capture public attention. This, of course, is not unlike Gaga’s own ascendance to fame in the late-aughts. Gaga hits all the right emotional beats, but her expressiveness permits the performance to go out of bounds in certain places, particularly during more emotionally taxing, musically oriented scenes. While Cooper falters in his never exactly elucidating Jackson’s core, Gaga gets Ally, and proves herself a movie star.

 

In the months leading up to A Star is Born’s release, I wasn’t sure how the movie would fare. The movie’s trailer was routinely, if lovingly, mocked on social media: Gaga’s banshee cries were placed atop unrelated videos in humorous, Rick Astley-esque bait-and-switches; the moment when Ally steps out of a car but is immediately called back by Jackson has become meme fodder. Cooper and Gaga have been criticized for relaying the same stories, with robotic identicality, during the press tour; the former recently was profiled by the New York Times and was head-scratchingly difficult. Is this going to be Oscar bait gone wrong? I wondered.

 

Luckily, this remake strays somewhere north of “good”: unmistakably, it is wholeheartedly made, and there are glimmers of splendor, especially during the first hour. There is talk that the movie is en route to becoming an Oscar favorite. But as I watched A Star is Born unfold, I was pestered by a feeling that there was a finer movie sitting under it: one where Jackson is fully formed, where Gaga saunters through dramatic scenes as sweeping as the musical ones, where the movie paddles around in the come-up more than it does the tragedy. When the movie is inspired, though, it’s exceptional. And that's almost enough. B

 

Richard Widmark and Lauren Bacall in 1955's "The Cobweb."

S

tars are born every day. But if you pretend that stars are only born in movies called A Star is Born, then there have been exactly four births. In the technically inaugural iteration of the A Star is Born story, from 1937, Janet Gaynor played a farm girl who aspired to become a Hollywood actress. (I use “technically” because that film is a near-replica of a 1932 soap opera called What Price Hollywood?.) Then, in an almost three-hour bonanza from 1954, Judy Garland portrayed a small-time cabaret singer