Synopsis: A musician helps a young singer and actress find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career into a downward spiral.
Stars: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Dave Chappelle, Sam Elliott, Anthony Ramos, Andrew Dice Clay
Director: Bradley Cooper
Running Length: 135 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: If there’s one thing I can say about this fourth version of A Star is Born it is that you should most definitely believe the hype that has followed the film for the last several months as it has held private screenings and then debuted at the fall festivals. After laboring in development for nearly a decade and going through directors like Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg and rumored stars such as Will Smith and Beyoncé, the stars have aligned (literally) and produced a mega-watt 2018 version of this timeless tale of stardom.
I think we can all thank our fair godmothers Eastwood didn’t find his way behind the camera. As much respect as I have for him as a director, his films over the last few years have gotten stodgy and square which is the exact opposite tone of what was needed to bring this story into a new era. Instead we have Eastwood adjacent Oscar-nominated Bradley Cooper in the director’s chair and he’s definitely taking a confident page from his American Sniper colleague in moving from the actor period of his career into the actor-director phase.
The last time A Star is Born was seen onscreen was a whopping 42 years ago in Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson’s ill-advised update which moved the action from Hollywood to the rock-and-roll music scene of the late ‘70s. That version was sunk by a lead actress that wasn’t right for the character, a leading man that wilted in the presence of his co-star, a script that stunk, and a director that couldn’t salvage it. Plain and simple, it was a blight on the 1937 and 1954 versions and while it was the third highest grossing film of 1976 it’s considered by many to be the least enjoyable of the triptych. It’s no small miracle, then, that Cooper and fellow screenwriters Eric Roth (Forrest Gump and Wolfen) and Will Fetters (The Lucky One) managed to keep the music setting of the 1976 version but brought back the magic and music of the 1954 version along with the tragedy of the 1937 original. Here’s the best cinematic take on the material, a handsome film that runs too long but has such a dynamic duo at its center that audiences will easily forgive sitting in their seats 15 minutes longer than necessary.
Though decades have passed, the story of A Star is Born remains the same: A young upstart is guided to fame by a man whose own career is nearing the end. Aging country singer Jackson Maine (Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook) is a hard-drinker that’s losing his hearing. Though not struggling to stay relevant as previous iterations of this character, he’s in a certain holding pattern in his career where he can see the writing on the wall. Desperate for another drink and not wanting to go back to his hotel, he has his driver drop him at the nearest bar…and it happens to be a drag club that Ally (Lady Gaga) is performing in. Her performance and presence captivate him and they spend a night discussing his life, her plans, and everything in between.
The first hour of A Star is Born is devoted to Jackson and Ally’s burgeoning relationship as he whisks her away from her job and family (dad is played by Andrew Dice Clay, Blue Jasmine) to constantly be by his side. Jackson’s creativity is reenergized by Ally’s talent and by the time he brings her onstage for a duet of the song they co-wrote on the fly the film is positively bursting at the seams to have audiences stand up and cheer. Much like Judy Garland’s performance of The Man that Got Away early on in the 1954 version, the rest of the film can’t quite match that jolt of lightening moment, even though Cooper and Gaga fill the remaining time with memorable music and scenes that highlight the rocky road to fame and the dramatic fall of losing it all.
All pervious takes on A Star is Born have placed the female lead as the heart and soul of the picture but, and this is no slight on Lady Gaga who more than holds her own in the acting department, Cooper walks away with the movie. His greasy hair, grizzled features, and gravely voice instantly give you the entire story of years of rough living and his weary eyes tell of a man with a soul that is winding down. Meeting Ally and falling in love saves him from falling over the edge but is her love and care enough to keep him on steady ground? Cooper digs deep here and by the time the film reaches it’s four-hanky finale with the most startling ending yet, your heart more than aches for him.
As mentioned above, any fears that Lady Gaga wouldn’t be up for the challenge vanish almost the moment she appears onscreen. Though she does her best work while signing (as someone who has attended four of her concerts I can tell you she gives 150% every time and that’s the same here) Cooper coaxes far more nuance out of her than most people will realize. The chemistry between the two is off the charts and you can expect both actors to be showered with awards and/or nominations at the end of the year.
Another person to mention is Sam Elliott (I’ll See You in My Dreams, Grandma) as Cooper’s manager/big brother who has had to play father and sober cab nursemaid to his sibling while foregoing his own dreams and aspirations. Elliott has always been a strong presence in films but he’s given some pretty special scenes here that allow him to stretch further than he’s gone in quite some time. It helps that Cooper matches Elliott’s bottom basement growl; I had no trouble believing these were brothers with a fraught history.
The first half of the movie is so good and well paced that the numerous leaps in time that fill the second half are a bit jarring. Focused on Ally’s rise to fame as a pop music star (hosting Saturday Night Live, being nominated for a Grammy, etc) the film hops around quite a bit and leaves some storytelling elements in the dust. That’s also when Lady Gaga is at her weakest as her musical performances feel a bit restrained and overproduced. Anytime the two leads are alone on screen, however, brings the movie back to solid ground and by the time we reach the end we’re on the edge of our seats even if we already know how it’s going to end.
It’s easy to see why this garnered such hugely positive buzz months before it was released. It’s been finished for some time and waiting for it’s October release date. In the meantime, Cooper isn’t a dummy and wisely showed it to several big names in Hollywood (including Streisand) who have been effusive in their praise of the film. When it rolled out to critics they too were taken by the prestige of the picture and by the time the general public gets their eyes on it this weekend I’m certain even more good notices will come their way. It’s going to go even further with strong word-of-mouth and, I’m guessing, repeat business. I’m already finding time in my schedule to see it again.