It’s a tale as old as Hollywood. The story of one star rising while another falls has been told on film multiple times as Hollywood likes nothing more than to look at itself. A STAR IS BORN first hit the silver screen in 1937. The film starred Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, she as a simple farm girl who dreams of becoming a Hollywood actress and he as major movie star whose dependence on alcohol has sent his career into a downward spiral. It was made a second time in 1954, this time with Judy Garland as an aspiring singer in a band with dreams of breaking into Hollywood and James Mason as a former matinee idol who turns to alcohol to deaden the pain of seeing his career on the decline. A third version was made in 1976 but this time the backdrop shifted from film to the music industry with singing legends Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson playing the leads. Now, in 2018, Bradley Cooper (WAR DOGS; JOY; AMERICAN SNIPER; AMERICAN HUSTLE) keeps the musical backdrop, and directs himself and music superstar Lady Gaga as the star-crossed pair.
In this new take on a well-worn story, Cooper plays Jackson “Jack” Maine, a hugely successful but nearly broken down country singer-songwriter-guitarist. Years of touring have taken its toll on Jack and he suffers from tinitis, which leads him to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. One night after a concert, Jack decides to drown his misery in public and he ends up at a drag bar where he watches Ally (Gaga) perform on stage. He’s immediately smitten with her and the two leave together, ending up outside a 24-hour supermarket where they talk about her self-image, her songs and her career. At his next concert, Jack decides to bring Ally on stage to sing one of her compositions. Someone in the audience records the event and posts it online, making Ally an overnight social media sensation. Ally’s career takes off but Jack can’t seem to get control over his inner demons even with the unwavering support given by his manager and much older half-brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott, THANK YOU FOR SMOKING; THE BIG LEBOWSKI). After the Grammy Awards ceremony where Jack publicly embarrasses both himself and Ally, he decides to seek help by going to a rehab centre. Unfortunately for him and Ally, it’s too late.
There is a lot that is good with this film and a few things that aren’t so good. For a first film and a moderately budgetted one at that, this is a huge achievement for Cooper and he rightly deserves all the praise he is receiving. Yes, it’s a vanity project but he delivered what may just be the best version of this film yet. The story is current, the performances are all stand-out, the music (much of it written by Gaga and Lukas Nelson, son of country music legend Willie Nelson, with a few penned by Cooper himself) is imminently listenable and the cinematography by Matthew Libatique (MOTHER!; BLACK SWAN) is superb. The film absolutely soars for the first half hour or so, and the scenes of Cooper and Gaga performing together are electric, then it starts to head downhill very fast. Somehow, just as we see Jack begin to fizzle out, so does the film’s energy. For me, part of the problem lay with how Ally is written. When she is stripped down, she is an interesting character. However, when she gets the makeover treatment by her manager, she becomes a caricature of Lady Gaga or Christina Aguilera or Sia or any other sexy pop star of the day. I get that this isn’t the authentic Ally, as Jack keeps telling her, and perhaps she’s overwhelmed by all the attention she’s receiving (though she handles it incredibly well), but it is so far away from the real Ally that it isn’t believable. Yes, musicians have to make compromises on the road to fame but why make her into a pop star, especially if that’s not who she is? I would have preferred to see Ally become a Sheryl Crow-type of performer. That’s certainly how she starts out. Ally even sees herself that way. In one early scene in her bedroom in New Jersey, we see a cover of Carole King’s Tapestry on her wall. That’s the real Ally — a pop singer, yes, but natural, not glammed up. That being said, Gaga puts her all into the role and even the most cynical among us would be hard-pressed to say that the woman isn’t incredibly talented. Her singing performances are what keep the movie from going off the rails. The film’s closing scene is also wrong, wrong, wrong (the clothes, the hairstyle, the lack of a piano,…) but again, Gaga’s singing and a touching but all too brief flashback saves both it and the film. (Also worth mentioning is stand-up comedian Andrew Dice Clay, who plays Ally’s chauffeur father, Lorenzo. The character couldn’t be further away from the comedian’s stage persona and he’s an absolute delight to watch in this role.)
Even with its faults, A STAR IS BORN is still well worth seeing. It’s also one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year… but it’s still early days as the awards-buzz films make their way to our cinemas.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, October 18th at 8:30 am HK time!
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