03rd Oct2018

‘A Star is Born’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, Anthony Ramos, Dave Chappelle | Written by Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters | Directed by Bradley Cooper

star-born-poster

Unsurprisingly, there’s little new or original in A Star Is Born, Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut. Since the 1937 original, this is the third remake – it skipped a generation in the 1990s – and this time the toxic muses are played by Lady Gaga and Cooper himself. It has received raves in the US, although I wonder if UK critics might be a little more sceptical about its sentimentality and its hackneyed themes.

Jackson Maine (Cooper) is addicted to booze and pills, but that won’t stop him playing his heart out. The opening concert sets the tone and the style: we’re up there on the stage, enmeshed with the band, and it genuinely sounds live. But no sooner has the kit been hoisted off by the roadies (we never see any musicians dealing with their own gear in this movie), Jackson is in his limo prowling for a drink. He finds a drag bar, where he witnesses Ally performing “La Vie en Rose”. He’s entranced, so he uses his fame to steal his way backstage, and then steals Ally away from her dead-end life.

He brings Ally out of herself, inviting her onstage to perform a song they wrote when pissed on the pavement, like all real artists do. The song – the stirring “Shallows”, featured in the trailer – is an instant hit, so Jackson takes her on tour. They enjoy a whirlwind romance. No sooner are they married, Ally lands a record deal with a major label. Somewhere in the background she’s becoming a bona fide billboard star, although the film focuses on the relationship between she and Jackson. The fly in their ointment is fame. As Ally’s star rises, Jackson’s plummets, and they collide in the middle. The drinking is getting worse and he’s losing his hearing thanks to tinnitus.

There’s something delightfully jarring about Lady Gaga of all people being lectured on how to present herself confidently and think independently. Undoubtedly Gaga has megawatts of star power, and she’s a vocalist of limitless brilliance, but she is a limited actor on this evidence. Cooper delivers a somewhat monotone performance, although he does get to have a good contest with Sam Elliott (playing his tour manager, Bobby) as to who has the gravelliest voice.

That “Shallows” performance is genuinely uplifting. Ally starts meekly, building in confidence, before belting out the crescendo. A Star is Born has plenty of crescendo moments. It’s just a pity that the drama in-between isn’t nearly as inspiring. The splendid first act moves with a powerful directness and a dizzy briskness. A scene will start with someone being punched and then we find out why. But as Ally’s success skyrockets, and Jackson’s lie-ins get longer, it gets harder to empathise with their crises. It seems that in this world of public adoration, presidential suites and private jets, the only drama left is self-pity or self-congratulation. It’s hard to feel sympathy for a character who, after winning big at the Grammys, simply cancels her tour to hang out with her husband. Forget the little people like us.

A Star is Born is the product of an era when audiences were arguably less aware of the tribulations of the rich and famous. Perhaps things have come full circle. The digital era supposedly allows us to get closer to the real people behind the facade. But of course it’s just another facade – the image control is more sophisticated now than it ever was in the Golden Age of Hollywood. So, in a paradoxical way, pure fiction like A Star is Born should speak of a greater truth than the alleged “reality” TV of our age. Instead, the film muddles the notion of authenticity, one of its ostensible key themes. When Ally performs an excruciating pop song on Saturday Night Live, it’s not clear whether we’re meant to see this as success or failure. And when Jackson trashes the Grammys, is it farce or tragedy? Well, I laughed.

The script is sometimes a very efficient storyteller; other times, it would appear that some of the dialogue is being improvised. Perhaps this adds to the rawness of those specific scenes, but it’s also at odds with the deliberately heightened theatrics of the rest of the picture. Partly unscripted dialogue gives the arguments between Jackson and Ally a juvenile tone. Bizarrely, the script also has a recurring need to have characters remark upon how beautiful Ally is, as if we can’t already see Lady Gaga’s gorgeous, un-Hollywood face. It’s a handicap for a film about digging down to what is real; a film in which the lady in question literally says to her manager, “I am who I am.”

The chemistry between Cooper and Gaga is evident, although from a character perspective it’s not completely clear why Jackson believes so strongly in Ally beyond the obvious fact that he fancies her. The very timely notion of celebrity manipulation – of an older man abusing his fame to gain access to a young wannabe; of relentlessly appealing to her vanity; of using her to boost his own flagging career – is never explored.

On a technical level, Cooper’s first crack at feature filmmaking is a mixed bag. He shoots in inescapable close-up for the most part. It sometimes works – for example, during the scenes between Ally and Jackson – capturing an immediacy and intimacy rarely seen in Hollywood melodrama. But it does tend to squeeze characters into the frame, so when Jackson and Bobby are barking at each other they’re nuzzling like lovers.

If you’re looking for a good film about an alcoholic American rock artist, you’re better off with Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart. A Star is Born is a shallow Hollywood romance punctuated by orgasmic America’s Got Talent performances. Which is to say, it’s stirring and tearful in the moment, but also crudely manipulative and entirely vaporous.

A Star is Born is out in cinemas from today, 3rd October 2018.

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