Scalding Hot Take: A Star is Born (2018)
Even when I do accidentally cover something timely and relevant in terms of the films I see and write about, I still find a way to do everything ass backwards. So while I made like a good freelancer and went and wrote about two movies directly connected with a big movie in the theaters in the form of 1932’s What Price, Hollywood and 1937’s A Star is Born I nevertheless wrote about the two versions of A Star is Born that have the least to do with the Bradley Cooper-directed remake that’s currently rocking the box-office and generating Albert Nobbs levels of Oscar buzz.
The exquisitely tart, naughty, pre-Code George Cukor melodrama What Price, Hollywood isn’t technically part of the series but the first iteration of A Star is Born “borrowed” so extensively from the film in terms of character, plot, set-pieces and dynamics that the studio that produced it contemplated suing the later film for copyright infringement even though they shared a producer in David O. Selznick.
What Price Hollywood and the first A Star is Born are the only non-musical versions of this story. A Star is Born is so strongly associated with first Judy Garland, then Barbra Streisand and now Lady Gaga that people think of it as a fundamentally musical story, and a story fundamentally about music and the music business, even if that was a relatively late addition.
A Star is Born has become a story about talent, the kind of explosive, uncontrollable talent that comes along once in a generation and cannot be denied. That kind of talent lends itself to the melodramatic, high stakes world of musicals even more than it does to film.
The musical versions of A Star is Born aren’t just about talent; they’re celebrations of uniquely talented pop icons who have won over the public despite deviating in fascinating ways from our culture’s oppressive and exceedingly narrow beauty standards. In the world of show business and A Star is Born, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand and Lady Gaga are ugly duckings who blossom into elegant pop star swans under the tutelage of self-destructive mentors who can help them realize their dreams even as they prove tragically unable to save themselves.
The unlikely pop divas of the music versions of A Star is Born are too short. Their noses are too big. They look too Jewish, or Italian, or plain, or masculine. They’re not blonde and tall and model-gorgeous in the way we angrily demand women in show-business to be. There are a million different petty, bullshit reasons why these remarkable women should not ascend to the rarified realm of pop stardom but they’re too goddamn talented and too strong-willed to be denied.
Lady Gaga’s talent cannot be denied. The same cannot be said of Bradley Cooper. In the hazy days back when I was a professional film critic, I spent many years denying that Cooper was anything more than a vacuous pretty boy, a male starlet, a hunk instead of an actor. Like the rest of the world, It took me a long time to forgive Cooper for being so handsome and successful but over the course of The Silver Linings Playbook and Guardians of the Galaxy movies he won me over.
Cooper’s talent becomes undeniable in A Star is Born, not just as a dramatic actor of surprising depth and maturity but also as a musician, a screenwriter and a first-time director. A Star is Born is consequently a rapturous valentine to the talent and charisma of Bradley Cooper as well as a cinematic love letter to the splendor of Lady Gaga. That would be obnoxious and insufferable if it weren’t so goddamn moving and successful.
Cooper powerfully channels Kris Kristofferson, the grudging, perpetually inebriated star of the glossy 1976 version of A Star is Born, as well as co-star Sam Elliott, as Jackson Maine, a scruffy, country-leaning arena rock superstar with a hunger for drugs and alcohol and a talent for self-destruction on par with his gifts as guitarist and singer-songwriter.
On the lonely hunt one night for companionship and alcohol, the pop star ends up at a drag bar where he is blown away by Ally’s (Lady Gaga) performance of “La Vie En Rose.”
The attraction is instantaneous and explosive, the chemistry undeniable and soon these disparate but unexpectedly simpatico musicians are beautiful music together onstage and in the bedroom and any other place lovers make love. Chemistry, of course, is an ineffable yet essential quality that essentially comes down to, “Are these characters fucking, and if so, how mind-blowing is the sex?”
Most sex scenes are egregiously unsexy. A Star is Born is a wonderful, notable exception because these characters are definitely fucking and judging from their explosive chemistry, the sex is frequent, mind-blowing and unforgettable.
Of course it could be argued that chemistry involves more than just sex of extraordinary quality and quantity. This slightly more expansive conception of chemistry involves intangibles like whether actors connect emotionally and musically as well as romantically and sexually. On that level, Gaga and Cooper have extraordinary chemistry as well. They really do seem to love each other with a desperate, passionate, burning intensity that, alas, can never be enough.
A Star is Born is the latest version of perhaps the quintessential show-business melodrama, an epic, larger-than-life tale of two superstars in vastly different places in their journeys through life and show-business. Yet Cooper’s tear-jerker is defined at every turn by an unexpected and ultimately very powerful intimacy.
Much of that intimacy is conveyed through style. In his maiden bow as a director, Cooper boldly and surprisingly eschews the expected montage sequences and frequent cutaways to massive stadiums in thrall to the magic created by its instantly iconic lovers. Instead, Cooper tells this story largely through close-ups. There’s something exquisitely perverse about filming scene after scene in a towering coliseum then cutting away to the crowds as infrequently as possible but the intense focus on Jackson and Ally pays huge dividends creatively.
In true musical form, a lot of the emotion here is carried through music, through the frequent and frequently heart-wrenching performances but Cooper is just as comfortable, if not more comfortable, watching his characters connect through dialogue, through language, through touch.
Cooper’s decision to place the camera squarely on his actors instead of continually speeding the narrative along through montage sequences and zippy editing betrays his background as an actor and contributes to the film’s leisurely, unhurried one hundred and thirty five minute runtime. Cooper has enormous faith in his performers. That faith is justified tenfold, particularly with Gaga, who is so good and so natural that she doesn’t seem to be acting.
In the process, Cooper transforms a story that has always been larger than life into something defiantly life-sized.
Gaga and Cooper are revelations but the supporting cast is just as good and just as surprising. Andrew “Dice” Clay is quietly heartbreaking as Ally’s father, an inveterate star-fucker and wannabe crooner who lives vicariously through a daughter with the talent and the connections to do all of the things he dreamed about but could never accomplish himself. Dave Chappelle is similarly riveting as an old friend of Jackson’s who can see just just how much Ally means to him, but also how much that might not matter within the context of the singer’s bleary path to complete self-destruction. Sam Elliott, meanwhile, should win an Academy Award for playing Jackson’s brother and ornery but warm-hearted conscience, a talented singer and musician in his own right whose very existence serves as a lingering reminder of all of the pain and suffering behind Jackson’s melancholy croon.
A Star is Born feels so deeply rooted in the cinema and music of the 1970s, whether in the form of New Hollywood or the glossy 1976 version, that it feels weirdly anachronistic and incongruous when Lady Gaga starts performing glossy, contemporary, Lady Gaga-style dance pop that catapults her to the top of the pop charts to Jackson’s annoyance and profound ambivalence. A Star is Born feels only slightly less like a movie from 1976 than the version of this story that was actually released that year.
It’s jarring to hear Gaga’s character reference texting in a song she performs on Saturday Night Live when her husband seems like the kind of guy who exclusively uses pay phones and rotary phones.
Earlier versions of this story are about show-business as much, if not more, than they are about the tragic romance between the two leads. They’re about fragile creatures caught up in the inhuman machinery of movies and pop music and a fickle public that lifts dreamers up to unimaginable heights so that they can bring them down just as publicly and dramatically . Cooper’s A Star is Born, in sharp contrast, is fundamentally about two people caught up in a crucible of pop super-stardom one will not survive.
Cooper’s A Star is Born is at its weakest when it is most directly about the music industry. This is particularly true of a sometimes wobbly third act where Ally rockets to superstardom performing a plastic, hyper-produced form of pop music a world away from her work with Jackson or Jackson’s own earthy country-rock.
There’s something distressingly condescending, chauvinistic and old-fashioned about the film’s seeming belief that “real” music is made by soulful, hard-drinking white men with beards who reek of whiskey with an electric guitar and a kick-ass band, or a serious-minded woman at a piano rather than in a studio with a European super-producer and a team of songwriters and image consultants.
It’s almost too perfect, and entirely too on-the-nose that Jackson’s back-up band is played by Promise of the Real, the hard-touring combo (they’ve backed up the likes of Neil Young) led by Willie Nelson’s ferociously talented son Lukas, who also co-produced the soundtrack, co-wrote songs with Cooper and Gaga, and most ridiculously, was hired as an “authenticity consultant” for the film.
I rolled my eyes when I saw that Cooper hired Willie Nelson’s ridiculously gifted progeny to serve as an “authenticity consultant” for the film. How fucking pompous is that? But I’ve got to admit: Lukas did a fine job. A Star is Born feels authentic to its country-rock milieu to the point where moonlighting movie star Cooper somehow seems much more authentic pretending to be a Kris Kristofferson-like rock star than real-life pop superstar Lady Gaga does playing Lady Gaga-like dance pop for a huge mainstream audience.
A Star is Born perversely takes a lot of its cues from the only version of A Star is Born that is not great, the glossy, overwrought yet incredibly successful 1976 blockbuster. Cooper seems inspired more by Kristofferson the man than the character the great singer-songwriter played. In that sense, this feels like the movie the 1970s A Star is Born should have been but was not.
The film’s time-warp quality extends to it feeling like a product of a time when Hollywood took more chances and made films that were about something beyond studios’ insatiable need for boffo box-office.
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