Having spent this entire week immersed in the world created by William Wellman, tales of fame and romance and tragedy, I was fully prepared to fall in love once again with the remarkable characters of Esther Blodgett and Norman Maine. Those are the original names anyway, the names of these characters have changed over the years to include Vicky Lester, Esther Hoffman, John Norman Howard, and now Ally and Jackson Maine. The names change but the story is as romantic and tragic and beautifully moving as ever.
Bradley Cooper takes up the mantle of bringing A Star is Born to a new generation, taking up where William Wellman, George Cukor and Frank Pierson have tread before. It’s a daunting challenge for a first time filmmaker, as this is one of the greatest screen stories ever told. That Cooper proves to be up to the challenge says alot about his talents. That he also comes up short in some areas also speaks to his inexperience.
Lady Gaga stars in A Star is Born as Ally, a Los Angeles hotel worker who moonlights singing torch songs in a drag queen bar. That’s where by chance she meets rock star Jackson Maine (Cooper). Maine is just off the stage at the L.A Forum and, having run out of alcohol in the limo, he decides to make a stop at the drag club. Here, Jackson listens as Ally swoons her way through a breathtaking, all French, performance of La Vie En Rose.
The two spend the night talking and even writing music while sitting in the parking lot of a grocery store. Ally has no idea but in less than a week, the lyrics she pulled out of the air in that parking lot, would be sung live on stage in front of a football stadium size crowd at Jackson’s concert. Jackson is completely taken with Ally and when she blows away the concert crowd, the die is cast and Jackson Maine is deeply in love.
What a shame then that his falling in love is coinciding with beginning of the end of his career. Jackson’s drinking and opioid addiction are catching up with him. More urgently however, he’s struggling with tinnitus, and maybe losing his hearing and thus his livelihood, his very life blood, music. Will Jackson deal with his problems and be there for Ally as her career begins to take off or will he fade away like so many before him.
If you’ve seen the other A Star is Born movies, you know where this is headed. This is arguably the most famous tragic romance in film history. How we get there is far more important than where are heading and in that journey, Bradley Cooper does well to get us to where we are going. As both actor and director, Cooper is deeply compelling. He has a terrific singing voice, or at least a voice that is good for the kind simple songs crafted for him by the team behind Willie Nelson who went out of his way to help with the making of the movie.
It was at Willie Nelson concerts where Bradley Cooper got many of the live performance shots that we see in the movie. The authenticity of those performances is reminiscent of what made Barbra Streisand’s version of this story so powerful. Something about a real life live crowd interacting with the actors, treating them like their characters are as big and important as the story tells us they are, aids the experience of A Star is Born.
I have a lot of praise for Bradley Cooper’s direction in A Star is Born but I have a few issues as well. Some of the choices that are made in the movie, especially related to the music performed by Lady Gaga, are rushed and ill-explained. At one point Gaga’s Ally goes from singer-songwriter at home at a piano with a live band behind her to an overly processed pop star complete with choreography and dancers in the blink of a scene or two.
I assumed this was going to become an issue, that part of Ally’s journey was going to be fighting to be the kind of artist she first set out to be. It appeared that Rafi Gavron’s slick music producer was going to be the foil for Ally to get burned by the business and rediscover her art form but in the end, though he is a villain, we are to believe that the music she created for him is good and frankly speaking, I was not a fan of the dull, bleating, pop music produced for his character.
The film is quite confused on this point. At one point an angry and drunk Jackson calls out Ally for her sell out pop songs and says he hates them. We assume that’s leading somewhere but it goes nowhere and as he gets sober again he doesn’t say anymore about how he feels about her new musical direction. It’s a jarring choice and one that undermines the character of Ally who quickly loses the authentic quality that Streisand had especially built for her version of this character in ‘76.
This leads to an ending that rather than building to monster closing number that blows the doors off the building as Streisand did, instead ends with Gaga crafting something closer to Candle in the Wind, not a bad tribute but a rather bland one compared to Streisand’s rocker. I really wanted to see Gaga belt one out but the ending of this A Star is Born is a great deal more muted, surprisingly more staid. It has Gaga in front of an orchestra rather than a band.
As for Lady Gaga the actress, she’s quite compelling. She’s better than Kris Kristofferson who mostly acted in poses. She’s in the upper echelon of singers turned actors, she has the poise and self-possession of a superstar, thanks to her years of practice as one of the biggest music stars in the world. But it’s her quiet confidence that stands out here. Free of all of the gimmickry and oddity, we can finally just hear that voice and it is as stunning as ever, most of the time.
Perhaps Lady Gaga’s music isn’t my taste, though I do like many of her songs. If she was the one who conceived the pop songs in A Star is Born that we are supposed to like, especially one she performs on Saturday Night Live in the movie, she was way off. The song is terrible and the lyrics are utter nonsense. I was sure that the story was set up to reject the pop pastiche version of Ally and instead the movie appears to want us to buy into that version just because she’s really Lady Gaga and not the rootsy, singer-songwriter character we meet early on.
It’s night and day between the terrific music Ally makes with Jackson and the pablum she produces with the evil record producer. Granted, the same disconnect happens in the 1976 version when Streisand goes for a showtune/disco presentation opposed to Kristofferson’s classic rock god but the film set her up in that world before John Norman dragged her into his world and she never tried to be anything other than the singer we eventually hear.
Attempting to meld a piece of Lady Gaga into Ally instead of melding Ally into Gaga proves to be a mistake. The shift from the character to something closer to the real Gaga is too jarring and poorly plotted. It lacks context, we don’t get a progression from the pop rock of the soundtrack hit Shallow to the god awful electro-pop of Why Did You Do That To Me. For the record, Why Did You Do That sounds better on the soundtrack to the movie than it does in the movie but the shift in musical style is still a major issue for the film.
I wanted to love A Star is Born, I really did. I wanted this movie to have the same transcendent qualities that the original had. I wanted it to have the power of the Streisand version and the story of the 37 version. I wanted this to be one of the best movies of 2018. Perhaps my expectations were just too high. I like this movie, I recommend this movie, but if you expecting too much from it, prepare to be disappointed.