We’re finally here! It all begins now. Awards season. We’re through the August and September doldrums and now we get the good films. Since its heralded Toronto premiere, Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut A Star is Born is already earning some serious buzz. Does the dramatic musical have legs? Or will the hype slow down as the scene becomes increasingly crowded.
A Star is Born an oft-told story. This time, the film follows musician-on-the-rise Ally (Lady Gaga) and rock star Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) as they meet and fall in love. Their story goes through the peaks and valleys of any relationship in the public eye before coming to its inevitable conclusion. Bradley Cooper directs from a script he co-wrote with Eric Roth and Will Fetters. This is the fifth remake of A Star is Born with previous versions coming in 1932, 1937, 1954 and 1976.
Any film facing its fifth remake must ask one question, does this story really need to be told yet again? Does this version bring anything new to the table? Ultimately, in this case, the answer is debatable.
The strength in this version is by far and away the music. The song writing is quality enough that at least one song needs to be in the conversation when Oscar talk begins. Lady Gaga understandably shines brightly in the numbers. Her first concert rendition of “Shallow” is incredibly emotional and leaps off the screen in its power. A newcomer to musicals, Bradley Cooper displays solid talent as well, selling the numbers with the grace of a professional.
Cooper comes to A Star is Born as a first time director and it’s a solid introductory effort. However, Cooper makes an interesting decision (particularly noticeable in the early acts of the film) in keeping the shots very close and tight on the actors. Visually, the decision detracts from the scope of the movie. When the camera cuts back to look at the environment around the actors, there are some particularly interesting locations, most notably a cinematically beautiful shopping market. A choice like this is justifiable when you’re trying to put heavy weight on the emotionality of the performances, but that isn’t the case, especially so early in the film. However, with how A Star is Born currently plays, the shooting style is a frustrating one and pulls audiences back from a true appreciation of the narrative scale.
Ultimately, the problems with the story come in the structure and execution. While the root of A Star is Born is the romantic narrative, the chemistry between Gaga and Cooper never fully forms. Neither actor displays the love and desire truly pulling these two people together, and as their story develops becomes harder to understand why they stay together.
While Lady Gaga shines in the part, she in particular feels too strong for her role. Ally is a strong, saavy and capable woman. She calls out Jackson early in the film for his drinking. As such, once their relationship becomes increasingly dysfunctional it becomes harder to see why they stay together. At no point does she seem particularly captivated with him or in awe of his stardom. Furthermore, Gaga doesn’t bring the fragility of someone like Judy Garland (star of the 1954 version), which makes it more conceivable that these characters might stay together. While it’s very evident he needs her, she doesn’t need him. As the movie continues and his behavior becomes increasingly abusive… Jackson doesn’t deserve Ally.
Fans of Bradley Cooper should definitely check this one out as Jackson finds himself squarely in the film’s focus. It is his perspective dominating the narrative. This guy really likes talking about himself. As their relationship first develops, much of the couple’s time is spent talking about him. Aside from the basics (where she lives, her job, her father), the movie doesn’t bother developing her character. Ally’s purpose in the narrative is to build Jackson up and serve as an unofficial muse. That’s it. As such, when she begins to step away from the relationship and develop a personality of her own, he reacts with hostility and falls deeper into his own struggles.
On that note, the creative choices surrounding Ally’s meteoric rise also struggle when faced by Lady Gaga’s own reputation as a musician. She’s “discovered” by a stereotypically slimy record producer (Rafi Gavron) and before long, she’s twisted into his image of what a “pop-star” should be. She initially fights him (primarily about changing her hair color), but uncharacteristically gives in each time. The performer which comes out the other side is a perfect clone of a certain mid-2000’s, red-headed “pop-star”. There’s no way the Ally in the beginning of A Star is Born would let herself be turned into this.
In casting a leading lady with a musical persona as concrete as Lady Gaga it is difficult for viewers to distance themselves from her own career in the interest of buying into A Star is Born’s half-baked “Ally”. In fact, the lazy construction of this character is disrespectful to Lady Gaga and once again verifies that this film is fully and completely coming from Jackson’s perspective. Audiences are meant to see Ally as the “joke” of a performer he describes as he looses his muse grows further away from him.
Ultimately, aside from a killer soundtrack, A Star in Born doesn’t bring anything the previous four versions of the film haven’t. While Lady Gaga shines, the problematic narrative makes it clear that it is the unlikable Jackson Maine with whom audiences are supposed to identify. What the creative team didn’t realize is that their casting of such a strong, self-assured performer makes this an incredibly challenging leap to make. Let’s not count our Academy Award nominations before they’re announced.
A Star is Born opens in theaters this Friday.