Depending on who is doing the counting, Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born is the third or fourth iteration of Tinseltown’s most famous love story. The origin of the fading star meets fast rising talent romance dates back to 1932 when George Cukor directed Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman in What Price Hollywood?, an insider account of the fabulous lives usually portrayed on screen.
Five years later, the first of the A Star is Born films was released, its success proof that yarns about Tinseltown will always be in season. The late great Judy Garland was the star of the 1954 musical version directed by Cukor again and Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson updated the story to suit the changing landscape of the seventies.
Because every generation deserves their own version, Bradly Cooper rescued the A Star is Bornfrom development hell after names like Clint Eastwood, Beyonce and Leonardo Dicaprio had circled the project. Making his directorial debut- and oh! What a splendid one- an inspired Cooper makes like Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson and directs himself in the lead role.
From Garland to Streisand, the A Star is Born films usually rise and fall on the back of the leading lady. The role is pure gold and any actress- or singer- worth their salt would be terrified to try it on.
Not Lady Gaga. The role of Ally, the waitress/wannabe singer who hits the big stage after a chance meeting with Cooper’s legendary but fast declining balladeer, Jackson Maine is possibly one which Lady Gaga was born to play. She’s got the looks, the voice and possibly the back story, but can she summon the gravitas required to carry the day in her major big screen acting debut?
Taking a break from her dead-end job and thankless home situation with her dad, Ally comes awake at night while performing at a gay club to a group of kindred spirits. On one of such occasions, Jackson Maine (Cooper, soulful and terrific) wanders in, buzzed and fixing for a drink. Ally’s live rendition of Edith Piaf’s La vie en rose makes such an impression, it might as well be love at first sight. She joins him on tour and the takeoff of her career contrasts sharply with the decline of his. The demons of jealousy, fame, mental illness and most importantly, the pop industry complex creep in and Ally and Jackson find that they aren’t the only ones who get to decide if their union is worth keeping.
A Star is Born starts off briskly, powered by a winning screenplay adapted mostly from the 1976 version. Where the male leads of the ASIB films have been studio heads, thespians and rock royalty, Cooper’s Jackson Maine is a rough neck country legend who believes that singers must have something to say or they aren’t worth their talent.
The core tension at the heart of this version is that of the purity of the singer-songwriter vs the manufactured shine of today’s pop star. In this regard, A Star is Born is well suited for this time. Jackson Maine might be a mess but he loves Ally too much to be jealous of her success. Matter of fact, he wants her success just as anyone else. The difference is he wants it on his own terms, the old-fashioned way. But times have changed and Gaga who made her name from singing pop ditties, the likes of which Jackson derides, before doing a pivot to more adult fare, must surely draw parallels with her career.
The moment that a star is born- and every ASIB film has one- is a joyous scene to behold. Ally powers through Shallow, the soundtrack’s lead single before a live audience and the notes she hits are so glorious, matched only by her surprise at having done so. No one who has followed Lady Gaga’s career is surprised at this turn but ASIB manages to package and record it as a fresh movie moment.
Lady Gaga does most of the vocal heavy lifting unsurprisingly and while her songs are not as well written as say Ms Streisand’s Oscar winning Evergreen, she manages to make each one count, especially an anticlimactic Whitney Houston homage (I’ll never love again) that precedes her money shot for Oscar consideration conversations.
ASIB handles modern romantic relationships so unflinchingly- and has some things to say about family too- that the snail’s pace of the final act is surprising. Things begin to flirt with boring but this is perhaps useful as it helps guide viewers gently into the film’s emotional impact. It is the only ending that anyone who has seen the previous films knows to expect- and one that makes the most sense- but that doesn’t make it any less devastating. Adult dramas never felt this good and the next generation filmmaker to attempt a remake sure has their work cut out.