The 4th Time’s Got Charm, But Not Much Else – A Star is Born

If you’ve read this blog regularly, you know I am very much not a fan of remakes in general. In most cases, they’re lazy, cheap, and an insult to our collective intelligence. That said, if there’s a compelling reason, I will see a remade version of a classic film. Usually that reason comes in the form of the cast or the creative team behind it. For example, True Grit a few years ago was well worth seeing because the Coen Brothers were behind it. Rarely do they make mass-produced shit. It also wasn’t their first rodeo doing a remake, and while their version of The Ladykillers wasn’t great, there were some unique touches to justify the existence of the project.

There are even a few rare cases where a remake actually outdoes the original, becoming the definitive version. Such is the case with 1941’s The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart, and germane to this review, the 1954 version of A Star is Born, which earned an Oscar nomination for Judy Garland.

Now we have the fourth version of the film, marking the directorial debut of leading man Bradley Cooper. He plays Jackson Maine, a southern rock/country-style singer with a crippling alcohol problem. He pairs himself with Ally, a waitress and semi-aspiring singer/songwriter who is launched into pop music superstardom with his help. She is played by Stefani Germanotta, aka Lady Gaga.

There aren’t too many changes that differentiate this story from previous versions, other than using music as the backdrop (the first two versions used film acting, but Barbra Streisand’s version in the 70s was also music-based), and the method of the final resolution. That’s all I’ll say without spoiling. Even a tale told four times can’t be presumed to know the ending. As for character differences, the film has the addition of Sam Elliott as Jackson’s older brother/manager Bobby, as well as Dave Chappelle as Jackson’s old friend, Noodles. The supporting cast is rounded out by Anthony Ramos (most recently of Monsters and Men) as Ally’s best friend and a patron of a local gay bar, Andrew “Dice” Clay as Ally’s father, and Rafi Gavron as Ally’s eventual manager, Rez.

On the whole, this is an enjoyable film, but rather than sift through plot details and nitpick its flaws the way I normally do, I’m going to do something a bit different today. We’re into Awards Season now, and the campaigns are already getting started, with marketing and voter screenings to beat the band out here in Los Angeles. Ever since the first trailer debuted for this movie, it was clear that this was going to be one of Warner Bros.’ major prestige efforts. So, rather than just look at the movie in general terms, let’s break down the categories this film is likely submitting for, and give those areas the most scrutiny.

Best Original Song – The soundtrack is a mix of original material and covers of old standards (including an exuberant rendition of “La Vie En Rose” by Gaga), written by some combination of Cooper, Gaga, and Lukas Nelson, who – along with his band Promise of the Real – plays Jackson Maine’s stage band. There are also significant contributions from Mark Ronson, Andrew Wyatt of Miike Snow, Jason Isbell, and nine-time Oscar nominee Diane Warren.

The obvious front-runner from a very strong list is “Shallow,” the ballad between Jackson and Ally that makes her famous – the true “star is born” moment. It’s a wonderful, and powerful statement of intent, a grand thesis for the entire film. It’s no “Falling Slowly,” but honestly, what is? Still, it’s the kind of duet that screams, “GIMME A GODDAM OSCAR!”

Among the other notable tunes is “Black Eyes,” a hard southern rock anthem played by Jackson and his band. Cooper said he based his character on Eddie Vedder, but in this opening number, all I could see was Gregg Allman, and honestly, that serves as a better avatar for the character throughout the film. We also have two solid solo ballads from Gaga, “Always Remember Us This Way,” and “I’ll Never Love Again.”

Only two songs can be nominated from a single film, so don’t be surprised if that happens here. This may also be a great opportunity for Academy voters to give Gaga an Oscar that she probably wouldn’t get otherwise. She shared a nomination with Diane Warren for “When it Happens to You,” a song about sexual assault, which she performed with campus rape survivors at the ceremony a couple years ago. Unfortunately, the Academy was dead set on giving the award to the worst Bond Theme ever written. Now they’ll have up to five or six opportunities to correct the mistake.

Best Actor – Bradley Cooper has gone from comic relief to leading man in the relatively short span of just under a decade, and he certainly has charm and chemistry with Lady Gaga in this film. But under the surface, there’s not much there, apart from an unhealthy dose of maudlin melodrama. As I said, despite his claims of doing Eddie Vedder, he felt more to me like a warmed over Gregg Allman. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it lends itself a bit too much to cliché. His southwestern accent is more an excuse to slur speech, his alcoholism a tad too “Afterschool Special”-y. He does well enough, but it’s nothing truly special.

Best Actress –  This is Lady Gaga’s first major film role, and she too does admirably. She certainly does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to the emotional side of things. Sadly, she’s also part of the reason that the internal logic of the film breaks down. The other half falls on Cooper as director, and we’ll get to that shortly. But Gaga herself has some issues all her own.

Part of what makes a great performance is the ability to separate actor from character. Sometimes that’s not always possible, mostly when you have a seasoned leading performer, like George Clooney or Meryl Streep. But for Gaga, it’s almost impossible to separate the woman from the role, which is especially handicapping for her, given that this is essentially her cinematic debut, and despite the fact that she doesn’t appear as any incarnation of her stage persona until halfway through the film.

I fully admit that initially I didn’t even want to see this film when I first heard of it, and the opening trailer did no favors. Why? Because the entire premise of the film is predicated on the idea that Lady Gaga feels insecure about her appearance, that she can’t succeed in the music industry because she’s not pretty (specifically her nose, which I guess is a nod the Streisand version?). I just can’t reconcile this in my brain, knowing who she is. This is Lady fucking GAGA! Her entire career has been about self-love, finding the beauty in everything, and encouraging people to be open, free, sexual, and unashamed. But this girl can’t succeed because of her nose? Get the fuck outta here! Also, even if this was true, outside of her makeup and outfits, she looks like Marissa Tomei. In what universe is that considered too ugly to succeed? This is also among the myriad reasons why I never saw Snow White and the Huntsman. When your central conceit is that Kristen Stewart is objectively (because of the magic mirror) considered more attractive than Charlize Theron, I call bullshit and tune out. Gaga thinking herself as ugly is as absurd as Olivia Cooke’s character in Ready Player One thinking she was hideous for having a slight birthmark on her face.

Further, on a less obvious note, the story arc for Ally tracks with parts of Gaga’s career, but rings hollow on character beats. When we meet Ally, she’s a serious singer and songwriter who’s all but given up on her dreams. When she becomes a star in Jackson’s shadow, it’s because of the music she wrote, which included instrumentation and pure vocals. When she’s fully famous, it’s a caricature of modern trashy pop. She gets chastised at the iHeart Music Festival because she dismissed her dancers, yet spends the back half of the film doing more choreography than singing. Even her Grammy-winning song (which is just as much an indictment of the Grammys as anything else) asks “Why’d you come around here with an ass like that?” as if it was artistry instead of insipid garbage.

Now, if this is Lady Gaga’s story, it kind of makes sense. When she first gained fame, I remember thinking her stage name was wholly appropriate, as songs like “Love Game,” “Poker Face,” and “Bad Romance” were completely fucking infantile (I’ve warmed to a lot of her music since then). But this isn’t Gaga‘s story, it’s Ally‘s, and nothing established about Ally’s character would lead an audience member to believe that she’d be okay with any of the directions she’s taken in once she gains the spotlight.

Finally, while I thoroughly enjoyed Gaga’s acting chops (as well as the brief nudity – I’m old, not dead), I had real issues with the fact that the character of Ally had absolutely no agency of her own. Nearly everything she does is in reaction to other people, particularly Jackson. Again, she’s the star being born. She’s the title character. But it’s not really so much her story as it is her role in Jackson’s story. And even on the fourth try, that ain’t right.

Best Director – This is Cooper’s directorial debut, and there are some severe structural problems. There’s an unintentional meta joke in one of Jackson’s songs, where he croons, “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” So then, why are you remaking this movie for the third time? There’s no real sense of timing or pacing, which is especially jarring in a movie about music. His deep heart-to-heart with Dave Chappelle as Noodles comes completely out of left field, because he simply wakes up from a bender in Noodles’ yard. We never saw Noodles beforehand. We have no idea who he is (we can infer he’s a friend and a musician, as evidenced by his wall of guitars). After his involvement, we never see him again. That’s down to bad editing and story structure.

Similarly, he can’t seem to pick a side when it comes to the music industry at large, as well as its association with social media fatigue. Ally becomes famous because someone records her performance at his concert, and the video goes viral. Later in the film, when Jackson embarrasses Ally at the Grammys (pissing himself during Ally’s acceptance speech), there’s no viral backlash. If social media makes her famous, why wouldn’t it also damn him? There are a lot of moments like this that I feel could have been fixed with just a bit more exposition and a better edit.

Another thing that bothered me was the sheer hubris of Cooper behind the camera and as Jackson. It’s 2018. Social dynamics are changing all around us. More people are being empowered than ever before. And here we have Bradley Cooper casting himself as the only man who can convince Lady Gaga that she’s beautiful and talented. Bradley Cooper, Rocket fucking Raccoon, casts himself to mansplain the music industry to Lady fucking Gaga. I don’t know whether to be angry or impressed with the arrogance of it all.

Still, there is one creative touch that really worked for me, and this is definitely a credit to Cooper’s potential as a filmmaker. Like Spike Jonze in Her, he makes great use of red as a thematic device. If you watch the film, pay attention to any point where you see a red light. Whenever Ally is bathed in red light, something significant is about to happen. It’s like a much more cheerful version of the oranges in The Godfather.

Best Picture – Nope. Just, nope. I’m sure it’ll push hard for a nomination, but I sincerely hope it doesn’t get it. This is a good film, but nowhere near the quality needed for top honors. I know it looks like I’ve judged it harshly, but I really did enjoy it, much more than I thought I would. But since this is definitely going to vie for the major awards, I have to dive down the various rabbit holes and start judging it on those superlative terms. It doesn’t deserve much consideration for the Oscars, but it’s still a nice, largely pleasant movie worth seeing for a great date night!

Grade: B-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite song from the film? Should Cooper’s next movie be to explain physics to Bill Nye the Science Guy? Let me know!

4 thoughts on “The 4th Time’s Got Charm, But Not Much Else – A Star is Born

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