I am not certain that a third remake of the classic A Star is Born (due the math, now making four films with the same story and title) was necessary, but we have one. The original A Star is Born directed by William Wellman was released in 1937, that’s 81 years ago. It wasn’t a musical and it was inspired by a similar movie called What Price Hollywood, so the story was already recycled. Starting with the next version, 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason (considered the best by most critics) the remakes have been musicals. The 1976 remake starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, hasn’t aged so well. Although it was a huge box office hit and the musical numbers are good, it was clearly a vehicle for Mega star Ms. Streisand, who controlled most of the creative content which focused on making her look good, but not necessarily the story working.
Virtuoso Bradley Cooper, directed, co-wrote, co-produced, and composed many of the songs for this version. He plays Jackson Maine, a rock star whose career is slowly waning as he battles drug and alcohol addiction. Fate brings him to a drag bar, where Ally, played by Lady Gaga, happens to be the only real woman allowed to sing there. Beguiled by Ally’s down to earth honesty and her gorgeous singing voice Jackson offers her a ride home. Although Ally is impressed by Jackson’s fame and talent, she sees him for who he is, the real person, inside. Insecure about her looks, most specifically her nose, Ally is hesitant to perform her own songs, and feels more at home tucked away in the drag bar world. In Jackson’s eyes she is beautiful and she not only needs to be heard, but seen. Finally realizing she has nothing to lose Ally gives in to Jackson’s coaxing and praise and performs with him at a concert.
I’m not certain retelling plot points here is necessary, as the plot is very familiar, with a story this well known, it’s how the story is told, not the story itself that is crucial to its success. The film works best in its specific, intimate scenes, and less so in its broader story sweeps. GaGa and Cooper have great chemistry and the scenes between them, some of them lengthy dialogue scenes feel authentic. It is no surprise that Cooper, a four time Oscar nominated actor, is an actor’s director. Both leads are great, even if Cooper’s abnormally “low gravelly” voice was distracting for a while. He worked hard to lower his voice, but honestly I found it a bit much at first. It was a characterization choice, but I’m not sure the reason behind it; since Cooper wasn’t playing a real person, that was known for his deep voice. Perhaps it was an attempt to separate his character from the well-known movie star, whose voice we already know, from each other. Upon research it seems it was inspired by Sam Elliot’s voice, who plays Cooper’s older brother. Still, Cooper is very good, and he says more with his limpid ice blue eyes, than he does with his dialogue anyway. I have an aversion to vanity projects, so this might be my beef with his earnest efforts to change his voice.
Faring better in my opinion is Lady GaGa, who turns in a bravura performance here. Known mainly as a pop star (although she has acted before: American Horror Story), GaGa made her mark by over the top costumes, make-up and iconic videos that hide her true identity. Even her name is a fabrication. Therefore when you see her stripped of these things and playing a struggling singer/waitress-a real person, it seems fresh. It has the desired effect of seeing a real person become a star, this never happened in the Streisand version. Streisand can never come across as not being famous. GaGa’s Ally is a no-nonsense girl from a working class neighborhood, who has her feet planted firmly on the ground, even if she can sing like no one else- and BOY can she-Sing! There are some real magical moments in the film, and they often happen when Ally is singing, giving into the song, feeling. The last ballad is incredibly moving.
It’s her very authenticity that made me say, “huh?” when her character decides to marry Jackson shortly after a brutal drinking binge. GaGa’s Ally seems too strong, too together, too smart to say yes to a messy, self-destructive addict, especially right after seeing him at his worst. It’s true that she loves him, and he helped her career, but she seems too modern to be a martyr for a man. This is where perhaps the remake could have drifted from the original storyline a bit. Ally’s continual sacrificing for her damaged partner seems a bit dated. Perhaps this is why the setting of the film, although in the present, (cell phones, etc) sometimes feels nebulous (purposely?). There isn’t a lot of social media references, texting etc. and one of the most subtle, but wisely placed indicators of Ally’s fame is a huge billboard on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood; it could be from 1978 or 2018. Note also, a turntable and vinyl in Jackson and Ally’s crafty house that has little indication that isn’t a house from an earlier decade. This gives the film a timelessness feel. This helps make up for its sometimes rough storytelling. Ally’s manager scenes and his conflict with Jackson seem particularly “Hollywood” and chunkily written. As if they came directly from one of the older versions of A Star is Born adding to the conceit that you never forget you’re watching a movie
But, if you want a movie that’s well done, by an artist who was obviously inspired and passionate (Cooper) and you want a bit of old-fashioned movie magic-then it’s the film for you. If you love musicals and romance films, I highly recommend it. P.S.: I loved Dave Chappelle in the small part of Noodles. We need more Dave Chappelle in everything.