Director: Bradley Cooper
Writer: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters; based on A Star Is Born (1954 screenplay) by Moss Hart
Cinematographer: Matthew Libatique
Producer: Bill Gerber, Jon Peters, Bradley Cooper, and Todd Phillips
by Jon Cvack
I wasn’t expecting much from what was going to be the third remake of the film. I had watched what I thought was the original 1954 version with James Mason and Judy Garland, later learning it was the first remake of the actual original made in 1938 and that this is actually the third remake after the 1978 version with Barbara Streisand Kris Kristofferson.
Seeing it was Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, recruiting Lady Gaga for the title role, I expected a decent film; the kind that’s fun to watch but which you never return to. Weeks into its release, I started seeing people post about the film; including a few cinephiles saying Bradley Cooper might be the next Clint Eastwood or Mel Gibson; as powerful behind the camera in crafting popular mainstream films as he is in front. It was clear that this wasn’t some cheap musical going for a greatest original song Oscar, but going for the top prize and providing a film that’ll remain competitive for Best Picture. Somehow what could have been so easily maudlin was one of the most emotionally wrenching Hollywood studio films I’ve seen since Titanic (1997).
The film opens up with country/rock n roll singer Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) who needs half a dozen shots of gin and a couple of pain killers just to get him ready to perform. The camera follows him on stage and the opening song “Black Eyes” comes out strong; skating that fine line between badass and musical show tune; the kind of song where when you listen to the soundtrack its power is gone, going to show just how strong Cooper’s vision was.
Jackson leaves the show, pushes his way through the crowd and hops into his transpo SUV; a bottle of gin waiting for him which he quickly clears off. Those familiar with the story notice the foreshadowing omens, as the city’s bright lights at one point show a bunch of nooses in silhouette, hanging behind him. He sees a bar and asks the driver to stop, forcing his way in when a young man recognizes the megastar and warning him against entering a gay bar where a drag show takes place.
One of the girls Ally (Lady Gaga) is an aspiring singer who proclaims her mediocre looks (on the Hollywood scale, I guess) have prevented her from getting to the next level. She performs a French tune at the show, pouring her heart into it, not knowing that Jackson Maine is in attendance. Jackson is taken aback, requesting to go backstage to meet the girl and immediately falls in love, inviting her to go out and get a drink where the two end up at a cop bar. Jackson’s accosted by one of the off duty officers and Ally steps in, punching him in the face and the two head to the local market so Jackson can buy some of frozen peas and help her hand.
So begins one of only a couple awkward and very staged moments (for a musical) in which Ally breaks out into a song she made up on the spot, then stands up and belches out the chorus in a way I guess the filmmakers had to do to make the plot work, but felt a bit serving to that purpose. Oh well, it’s a musical and it’s easy enough to look past.
Jackson drops her off at home where her dad and his luxury driving crew assemble before their day of picking up celebrities and betting on horse races. Cooper asks for her to come to the show tonight, but she has work. Jackson’s driver nevertheless shows up and vows to follow her, which should be creepy, but again serves the purpose of getting Ally to quit her job and head out to the show where Jackson invites her on stage to sing the song Ally just sang to him the night before in the parking lot.
Ally’s guest appearance goes viral, and she continues to make further appearances at Jackson’s shows, attracting the attention of music producer and manager Rez Gavron (Rafi Gavron) who provides a flawless Hollywood slimeball. Elated, Ally tells Jackson Maine the news, who blotto once again, brushes off the news before falling off the couch; later demanding that Ally preserve her spirit and avoid selling out. This proves a challenge as Rez demands she take dance lessons and undergo a radical makeover. When she refuses to have her back up dancers on stage, Rez scolds her; threatening that unless she listens to everything he says, success just wouldn’t work and he’d find someone else.
Meanwhile, Jackson’s hearing is starting to get worse; leaving you to wonder if initially, or at least partially, he recruited Ally in order to save his ailing show. Soon he’s forced to cancel his tour, and after being invited to perform at the Grammys, is forced to give up his vocals and play a lone lead guitar. He gets bombed out of his mind before the performance, hardly able to stand and returns to his seat, where Ally waits to see if she can win Best New Artist of the Year. Her name’s called, and in the most memorable scene from the 1954 version, she accepts with Jackson following behind; hardly able to walk up the stairs, essentially crawling over to her and then pisses his pants for all the world (via YouTube) to see. Ally’s father flips (Andrew Dice Clay), and in a phenomenal character shift, we see the dad move from the RomCom blue collar comedy relief, to an enraged man, wanting nothing more than to beat Jackson down. Instead, he tosses Jackson into the shower where Ally somehow finds it in her heart to forgive him, washing him off as Jackson shakes from his need for another drink.
He checks into an AA program, admitting his alcoholism and turning his life around. He admits to his sponsor that he once tried committing suicide with a belt when he was young; hanging himself from a fan blade which broke up and cut him on the head. They laugh it off and Ally later visits him, where in yet another wrenching scene, displaying Cooper’s utter prowess, he apologizes for what he did to her. Later, after being released, he gives the same to his brother Bobby (Sam Elliott), though in the perfect way men often talk around the apology. Elliot’s beet red eyes refuse to leave a dry eye in the theater.
Later, Rez visits Jackson, who offers yet another apology and thank you for taking care of his girl while he was in rehab. Rez ignores the gesture, instead scolding Jackson for nearly ruining her career (and the vast profits he hopes to rake in). Jackson is smothered; realizing that his weakness could destroy the dreams of the one person he loves. He heads out to his truck, finds some pills, and heads into the garage and hangs himself with a belt; never making it to Ally’s big performance.
I can’t recall the last time I’ve shed so many tears in a film; no matter how much I resisted. It was though someone spiked the film with onions, leaving me completely helpless and overwhelmed with emotion. The first film that comes to mind is Titanic, though even that series of Niagara Falls was reserved for the ending. I shed my first tear when Ally was brought on stage to sing her song, and they kept flowing from there on out. Even after the film ended and I was driving home, I kept getting choked up; embarrassed, though impressed that it could stick with me for so long.
It’s a testament to Bradley Cooper’s phenomenal direction in which he somehow avoided nearly all of the maudlin pitfalls that could have made things cringey. There was an honesty in each and every scene; arguably Cooper’s finest role as he disappeared into Jackson Maine and I was left hoping to check out his other music; or that Lady Gaga’s debut role would be such an incredible knock out. It accomplished the miraculous in, like Titanic, making me fully believe how much these two characters loved one another unconditionally; where Ally couldn’t abandon Jackson no matter how much he hurt himself, and that Jackson was willing to make such a sacrifice.
The film captures that yearning to be heard and the obsession that great artists have; where to live with another is about sharing love someone has both for you and their work. In the end, I can’t help thinking that ultimately Jackson might have made the right move; that in a grand gesture of love, however selfish it might seem to be for the pain he causes others, it was ultimately selfless; in order to avoid destroying the love Ally had for music. What tears most at the heart string is that Jackson thought his role in her life was worth so much less. Then again, as he lost his own abilities, maybe it was the best decision for all the outcomes. He wouldn’t have to live with the pain of being unable to play, and to take away Ally’s passion for music.
BELOW: A song that is awesome to watch and less awesome to hear
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