A film review by Craig J. Koban October 21, 2018

RANK:  #7

A STAR IS BORN (2018) jjjj

2018, PG-13, 135 mins.


Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine  /  Lady Gaga as Ally  /  Sam Elliott as Bobby Maine  /  Dave Chappelle as Noodles  /  Andrew Dice Clay as Lorenzo  /  Alec Baldwin as Saturday Night Live Host

Directed by Bradley Cooper  /  Written by Cooper and Will Fetters




I personally find it so achingly difficult to screen every new remake that sees the cinematic light of day as of late.  Unless you have something fresh and revitalizing to bring to the table while maintaining some semblance of faithfulness to the original (my litmus test for good remakes), then what's the point?   

And A STAR IS BORN has certainly been made and remade far more times than I sometimes can keep track of.  It all started with the 1932 film WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD?, which later begat the 1937 remake A STAR IS BORN, which, in turn, begat the 1954 Judy Garland led remake of the same name and then (catching breath) ushered in the 1976 rock musical remake featuring Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Streisand.  To say that we've already had plenty of permutations of this story (one massively successful star starts to fade when another down on their luck one shows up and begins to succeed) is the grandest of understatements. 

This preamble brings me, obviously enough, to the latest incarnation of this age old and, to be fair, overdone tale of celebrity culture, this time overseen by Bradley Cooper (making his feature film directing debut), and right off the bat it becomes clear that he has ample new tricks up his creative sleeve to make his A STAR IS BORN simmer with invigorating newness.  That's not to say that Cooper (co-writing the film with Will Fetters) doesn't pay reasonable homage to his film's multiple antecedents, because he does stick to the overall narrative formula of what has come before.  Cooper understands the kitchen sink nature of this underlining material (the film is simultaneously rags-to-riches coming of age story, a critique of celebrity culture, a sweeping romance, a substance abuse melodrama, a cautionary tale of what to do with newfound wealth and fame, and, ultimately and sadly, a tragedy), but he miraculously and thanklessly makes all of its divergent pieces flow smoothly together.  Perhaps even better, this A STAR IS BORN doesn't have the color, sheen, and feel good inspirational gaudiness of other genre pictures: This one is rough, rugged, gritty, and rawer then what's come before, and it's that immersive, eavesdropping level of dramatic verisimilitude that makes his version feel so much more alive and lived-in.  In short, Cooper has made old and stale material feel young again. 



That, and A STAR IS BORN is an absolute embarrassment of performance riches and features the exceptional one-two performance dynamic between Cooper and co-star Lady Gaga (yeah...that one, more on her in a bit).  Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a fortysomething country music singer that has achieved peak popularity in his career.  He still can belt out a tune to capacity crowds of adoring fans, but, deep down, his heart doesn't seem as into it anymore.  Any amount of on stage passion that he does maintain is all but eroded the instant he leaves the stage and enters his limo, during which time he literally bathes himself with booze.  His only meaningful relationship is with a bottle of whiskey, much to the concerned and mostly angry chagrin of his older brother/campaign manager Bobby (a never been better Sam Elliott).  Bobby is the only thing that is able to help prop up his alcohol guzzling and pill popping sibling from being a total media and career ending disaster.  Without him, Jackson would be one step closer to a grave. 

Finding himself drunkenly journeying into a drag bar one fateful night, Jackson locks eyes with one of the establishment's performing acts, Ally (Gaga), whose angelic voice and tremendous presence ignites both a romantic and career fire under him.  Beyond singing and writing, Ally is a near poverty stricken waitress supporting herself and her father (an unrecognizable Andrew Dice Clay) and, as a polar opposite extreme of her stage work, seems shy, introverted, and unsure of herself.  Jackson thinks, of course, that she's a knockout and brilliant musician, leaving her both flattered and somewhat weirdd out.  The pair begin a relationship that culminates with Jackson improvising one night by inviting Ally on stage.  After processing her initial fears, she joins him, wins over the audience with her magnificent vocal range, and soon accompanies Jackson on tour.  She becomes an overnight sensation and break out hit, whereas her boyfriend in Jackson only further succumbs to his addictive ways and sees his star plummet. 

The central story arcs of A STAR IS BORN are, as stated, predictable and routine on paper, but Cooper as a director finds a new lease on this browbeaten subject matter by utilizing an in the trenches style that makes the film feel grounded and authentically drawn.  The concert scenes in particular have a level of you-are-there veracity that helps cement viewers into the later painful story of romantic co-dependency.   Cinematography by Matthew Libatique has a loose, free wheeling, yet beguiling quality that helps segregate this A STAR IS BORN well apart from those before it.  Of course, the film is littered with memorable songs as well (mostly written by Cooper and Gaga) that are all sensationally realized and touchingly sung (Gaga certainly doesn't have anything to prove as a singer, but Cooper himself is the surprising standout here; he's rock solid and always believable as his country star legend). 

The performances are key, and Cooper (a reliably stalwart actor already) is show stoppingly fantastic as his once musical superstar that - when not battling chronic drunkenness - can still wow audiences with passionate performances.  With a low registering vocal timber (that sort of mimics that of co-star Sam Elliott), it would be easy to mislabel Cooper's work her as distractingly mannered, but there's a lot more going on here beneath the surface as he has to suggest a man that's still a supremely confident musician that frankly has had all joy sucked out of his body and life by his self abusing behavior.   Cooper has an unlimited amount of electrifying chemistry with Gaga, and watching the two actors feed off of one another and build up each other's characters in the process is one of A STAR IS BORN's many graces.  I'm usually in a suspicious frame of mind when I hear musicians trying their hand at acting, but there's simply no denying that Gaga's star making turn here will probably net her a much deserved Oscar nomination.  She brings the fiery passion to the film's songs (again, hardly unexpected), but I was more taken in with how consummately dialed in and restrained her tricky performance was, suggesting an introverted and vulnerable nobody  of supreme self doubt and loathing that finds it within herself to become a somebody.  She's the emotional glue of this film. 

Cooper wisely gives a democratic amount of time to the supporting characters and side relationships that typify an already solid pairing of himself with Gaga.  I especially appreciated Ally's endearing bond with her inordinately proud father, and the fact that any film could make me forget that I was watching Andrew Dice Clay and allowed for him to give a genuinely realized and full bodied performance of his own is to its esteemed credit.  You really gain a sense that this father is living wholeheartedly and vicariously through his daughter's meteoric success.  Perhaps the best and most heartbreaking tandem in the film belongs to Jackson and his beleaguered brother, and Elliott - the wise industry veteran - nearly hijacks the film from everyone else around him in the manner that he sells this poor soul being broken down from the inside out by Jackson's complete unwillingness to seek the help he needs.  But he's no weeping victim on the sidelines and in the shadow of his brother's success; Bobby is an aggressively and angrily frank presence in Jackson's entourage that's not afraid to tell him that he's sick and tired of his toxic behavior.  There's one small and unassuming scene - showing Bobby dropping his brother off and then backing out of his driveway - that shows Elliott's remarkable range at showing his character's lifetime worth of regret without any dialogue and all in his saddened eyes. 

If there were an element that doesn't work very well here then it's the three way relationship that develops in the late stages of the film between Jackson, Ally and her well meaning, but career domineering manager (Rafi Gavron) that seems to chug by a bit too much on perfunctory autopilot for my tastes.  It's a minor quibble, because A STAR IS BORN still manages to be a compelling - if not ironic - take on the modern social media led celebrity juggernaut, where literally everything a star says or does has to be micromanaged for the purposes of minimizing future damage control.  Ally's transformation from a somewhat simple auburn haired performer with a grand voice and into a lavishly costumed mega star replete with flashy dancers whose movements with her are meticulously choreographed is pretty meta, in hindsight.  Witnessing Gaga transform herself in the process of taking this role - sort of deglaming herself to fully inhabit that mind, body, and spirit of Ally - is almost the polar opposite of Ally's arc in the film.  It's an endlessly captivating juxtaposition, seeing as Gaga herself is part of the vast and deeply cynical industry that chews up and spits out stars in an instant that allows for Ally's success. 

A STAR IS BORN is not only one of the great modern remakes, but also rather unexpectedly one of 2018's finest films.  Cooper persuasively hones in on the fragile and flawed nature of his characters, to the point where you find yourself easily invested in them while feeling great empathy for these damaged people, despite them being massively popular celebrities.  And the whole enterprise, as a direct result, builds towards its three-hanky conclusion without feeling like it manipulatively pulled tears out of our eyes; this film earns its heartbreak.  And in many ways, A STAR IS BORN is a breakout effort for Cooper as a director and Gaga as an actress to stand up and take notice of.  With both of them triumphantly sharing the screen together in one of the more unlikely star unions in many a moon - and utterly carrying the film they occupy and taking a clichéd Hollywood tale and making it simmer with renewed interest - I was reminded that sometimes the best films are ones that sneak up and surprise you beyond your modest expectations of them.  



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