A raw and unflinching deconstruction of the music industry machine and the undue pressures forced upon vulnerable and traumatised artists in shameless pursuit of commercial success and societal relevance, anchored by a gut-wrenching performance from Lady Gaga. But enough about the superior Netflix documentary, Gaga: Five Foot Two – the film actually being reviewed here is the much-touted A Star Is Born, the third musical remake of William A. Wellman’s original 1937 drama. This latest iteration has been ushered to the screen by Bradley Cooper in his directorial debut, after previously being attached to a 2011 package that would have co-starred Beyoncé and been directed by Clint Eastwood.
Hewing closely to the model of the ’76 A Star Is Born with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, A Star Is Born ‘18 similarly traces the contrasting fortunes of two musicians. Country rock troubadour Jackson Maine (Cooper) drunkenly stumbles into a drag bar just as the timid and self-conscious Ally takes to the stage for a powerhouse, Sally Bowles-aping rendition of Edith Piaf’s ‘La vie en rose’. The transfixed Jackson makes contact with Ally and after a long night of coaxing out her songwriting abilities, a creative and romantic infatuation blossoms between the pair as Jackson whisks Ally away to support him on his world tour. As Ally ascends and her industry recognition grows, conversely, Jackson risks derailing his own career as he is consumed by his dependency upon alcohol and prescription drugs, leading to a devastating resolution.
A Star Is Born is this year’s The Greatest Showman, not least because every mum in the country will be receiving this film’s soundtrack album on Christmas morning, but also because it similarly fudges the story it apparently set out to tell. In approaching such an oft-revisited film concept, Cooper has previously admitted that his way into the story was to explicitly focus on the elder male star’s personal demons and depict the reality of drug and alcohol abuse amongst the artistic community in a harrowing manner. The finished film admittedly hints at empathetic insights into contemporary dilemmas facing artists, such as the lack of genuinely effective support networks and treatments for addiction within the music business beyond rehab facilities that sweep the problem under the rug, and whether the industry machine continues to amplify and aggravate the destructive and hyper-self-aware proclivities of artists, issues which have sadly taken on a fresh resonance in the recent passing of rapper Mac Miller. However, the film ultimately abandons these more probing tangents in service of the central Jackson and Ally relationship arc, perfunctorily supplemented by “Tortured Artist” motifs in a manner reminiscent of Walk the Line or, unfortunately, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story; a laughably earnest plea by Jackson to Ally ahead of – of all things – a Saturday Night Live performance to express her inner truth provided a call-back to the Walk Hard joke, “don’t interrupt him, he has to think about his whole life story before he goes out on stage”.
And yet, A Star Is Born ’18 does in fact offer several moments of transcendence, most of which can be credited to Lady Gaga in her proper feature film debut (overlooking her role as La Chameleón in Robert Rodriguez’s Machete Kills). While only the most naïve cinemagoer would be honestly surprised by the former Stefani Germanotta’s vocal prowess or her pivot from the meat dresses of the early 2010s towards claiming her mantle as one of the finest soul singers of the 21st Century, her performance as Ally is nevertheless spellbinding, deftly drawing on her own struggles for recognition and managing her singular career under oppressive criticism, and feeding them into her characterisation of Ally as a timid star, undermined and undervalued to the point of no self-belief. It is this foundation that buttresses the musical performances and ensures their dramatic resonance. While Gaga’s belting out of ‘Shallow’ in front of a roaring crowd is thunderously entertaining, her a capella performance in a supermarket parking lot in the wee small hours of the morning is the pivotal moment of affect in this film, the birth of the star. Quite honestly, every particle in the atmosphere of the theatre reverberates during this sequence. If Lady Gaga repeats Judy Garland’s A Star Is Born ’54 misfortune of losing out on the Best Actress Oscar at next year’s ceremony, it will surely bring about gay Ragnarok.
Unfortunately, with his attentions spread elsewhere in the production, Bradley Cooper forgot to devote any time to his own performance. In spite of his undeniable charisma and ability to carry a tune, the simple fact is that his drawling Sam Elliott-impersonation rendered most of his dialogue as unintelligible mumbling. In one scene, a stand-off with his elder brother sees Cooper unwisely attempt to out-Sam Elliott the real Sam Elliott, resulting in what sounds like gravel in a blender. Yet in spite of these acting shortcomings, Bradley Cooper’s strengths as a director are plain to see, coaxing engaging performances from his ensemble, staging the musical performances with brio and energy (in the opening scene of Jackson Maine playing Coachella, the handheld camera hugs tights against his back, capturing the crowd in an over-the-shoulder POV that truly situates the viewer in the shoes of a rockstar), and working with Darren Aronofsky’s usual Director of Photography, Matthew Libatique (Black Swan, mother!) to craft indelible imagery, several shots of which could deservedly be added to the canon of great cinematography.