A STAR IS BORN (2018)
Director: Bradley Cooper
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Rafi Gavron, Andrew Dice Clay, Anthony Ramos, Dave Chappelle
MPAA Rating: (for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse)
Running Time: 2:15
Release Date: 10/5/18
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 4, 2018
"It's the same story, told over and over forever," says a character near the end of A Star Is Born. He's not talking about this particular story, but it fits, nonetheless. This isn't a tale quite as old as time, but it is almost as old as Hollywood.
The story of a rising star—a woman of good and true character who achieves her dream by luck and appreciates it—and a falling one—a man whose personal demons have prevented him from finding happiness in his fame and fortune—keeps being told every couple of decades or so. It's almost as if every generation needs a familiar story of happy happenstance and seemingly inevitable tragedy within that business called show. The good news is that this generation gets a pretty good version of the story.
People want to see what could be possible with a lot of hard work and luck, and they also want to remember the price of letting that good fortune get to your head or not appreciating it properly. That seems like a reasonable enough explanation for why the story is told again and again, but whatever the reason for this story's longevity, we now have four versions of it. The first two, from 1937 and 1954, were set in Hollywood. The lackluster 1976 variation transplanted the story to the world of music, where co-writer/director/star Bradley Cooper's iteration remains.
This version is much, much better than its immediate predecessor, although it doesn't quite live up to the quality of the first two. That's fine. What we learn from it is that this story doesn't need to redefine or transcend its origins. It just needs to be told well, with good performances, a real sense of aspirational energy, and a genuine feeling of pathos, as we realize the world apparently doesn't have room for two stars.
Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a rock star with country leanings who has come to rely on alcohol and pills to keep going. We see him at his height at the beginning—or at least as high as he's capable on his own now. He has been at this business for about 14 years, and the ringing in his ear from tinnitus keeps getting worse. His older half-brother Bobby (Sam Elliott) is his manager, but at this point, Bobby is mostly trying to manage Jackson's self-destructive tendencies.
The inevitable rising star is named Ally (Lady Gaga), a waitress who's singing at a local bar, where Jackson just happens to come looking for another drink. He's impressed with her abilities and enchanted by her presence. The two spend a long night together, talking about the superficial nature of the music industry, their respective stories, and, of course, music itself. Ally writes songs, but she refuses to perform them out of insecurity. Jackson pushes her to keep going, and when she arrives backstage to watch his concert, he pulls her on stage to sing the tune that she sang for him the previous night.
There are, of course, two stories here—the newcomer's rise and the old guard's fall. Each is given an equal sense of weight, as these characters cross paths and connect along their almost preordained paths. Ally's is the more inspirational, and there is a real gravity to the moment that she takes the microphone in front of a packed venue. Actually, there's more to it than just that. As a whole, Gaga's performance is especially strong, particularly in the way Ally maintains her basic goodness and decency as Jackson continues his decline and the music industry puts pressure on her to change her ways.
The moments before and during Ally's first performance, though, really shine. Gaga is a phenomenal vocalist, although we already know that from her career. Instead, note the hesitation in going on stage that first time—the build-up to the decision that it's now or never. Watch how Ally has to contain herself while singing—holding her hands to mouth to hold back a smile or tears or some vocalized expression of pure joy. It's quite a scene, and it helps that the music here is quite good, too.
The other path belongs to Jackson. This might be the first version of the story that actually cares about this character more than just seeing him as a mysterious, archetypical icon of fading glory.
There's the alcoholism, of course—a constant in this tale. Eric Roth, Cooper, and Will Fetters' screenplay gives this variation of the character a past, as well as a support structure of family and friends (real ones, not just industry glad-handers). His substance abuse is never played for laughs (an issue with the early scenes of the first two versions), and there's more to Jackson's hastening fall than jealousy. Take the scene at an award ceremony, where he causes a scene: It previously had been played as an outburst of anger and resentment, but here, it's simply sad and pathetic. Cooper plays Jackson as a man consumed by more than alcohol and drugs. There's a far deeper pain and insecurity to him, and the character's final decision is more about that than some selfless act of getting out of Ally's way.
Cooper's interpretation of the material is more intimate and character-focused than any of other versions, and while that doesn't change much about the story, it certainly turns the material away from easy melodrama. The story, as the character from the opening quote says, may not change, but it's how an artist tells it that matters. A Star Is Born is told in a way that makes it feel just new enough.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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