Friday, February 12, 2021

Review - A Star Is Born (2018)

February 12, 2021
A Star Is Born – US, 2018

A curious thing happens midway through Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born – it becomes unstuck in its own time frame. Bear with me here. The first half of the film has many of this era’s hallmarks – YouTube, smart phones, the long-term effects of performing live music, an honest portrayal of the cruelty that some women experience when they try to make it as a singer - the cumulative effect of which is a relevance that a much rosier depiction akin to that of the first three adaptations of the story might not have for contemporary viewers. And then inexplicably those aspects rooted it in the time of digital downloads, poor album sales, and challenges that come with being an overnight internet sensation mostly evaporate, replaced by a world in which negative comments and cellular tracking devices simply do not exist. It’s as if screen writers Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters were so fatigued after writing the first half that they applied white out to the second half of the screenplay of the 1976 version and simply changed the names. (Thankfully they removed the scene in which a nude reporter tries to conduct an interview with the rising star immediately after having a dalliance with her husband.)
This is, of course, a bit of hyperbole, but when one of the key plot points involves an aspiring singer going viral, it seems wrong not to acknowledge the online criticism that would undoubtedly be levelled at her when what follows is a studio creation instead of the sensation who drew rapturous applause from an unsuspecting audience just months earlier. Just imagine the reaction if Dylan had waited until the internet existed to switch to the electric guitar. The response would have been brutal. Here, the only conversation about the utterly complete make-over comes across as just the heightened critique of an insecure and jealous husband. And then the subject is unceremoniously dropped.
Another significant difference between the film’s two halves is the pacing. The first half of the film takes its time and does a remarkable job of establishing the bond that develops between the film’s two central characters: country-rock singer Jackson (Jack) Maine (Bradley Cooper) and Ally (Lady Gaga). The two meet at a drag bar after Jack runs out of alcohol and stops at a club he happens to be passing. He is, fortunately, just in time to see Ally (perhaps the only straight entertainer the club has) perform a rendition of “La Vie En Rose” that struck me as an amalgamation of Flashdance and Coyote Ugly. Jack is intrigued – and perhaps a bit horny as well – and after being introduced to Ally backstage, the two strike up a conversation that is more than a bit strained. As the evening unfolds, their defenses lower, secrets are exchanged, lyrics are sung, and, more importantly, a bond begins to form. Jack’s core message seems to be that of William H. Macy in The Cooler: “Look in my eyes. I am the only mirror you’re ever gonna need.” Sure, it’s corny, but he’s a celebrity, and celebrity compliments resonate much more than those uttered by your average Joe. So, imagine how she feels when he says he’s going to sing her song live. Love comes fast in such circumstances.
The highlight of this part of the film is the performance of “Shallow,” and if David Thomson ever writes a follow-up to his book Moments That Made The Movies, I am certain a section will devoted to it. The scene starts with Jack’s sweet prodding of Ally to join him on stage, and Cooper gets this moment just right. His calm gentle smile and smooth delivery convey both confidence and admiration, and it seems natural that Ally would be persuaded to join him on stage. Yet, the way she does is the stuff of wonders. Impressively, Lady Gaga is able to express Ally’s understandably nervous demeanor following years of rejection and insults while also hitting the types of notes that only those destined for real stardom achieve. Jack then gives her one of those “told-you-so” looks, and when it is time for the next verse, her confidence, as evidenced by the glow radiating from her face, is sky high. As the title states, a star has been born.
Those familiar with the other incarnations of the story know that the good times don’t last. As Jack’s demons – alcoholism, drug addiction, hearing loss – catch up to him, Ally’s star rises. Surprisingly, the film is less successful at conveying Jack’s decline in popularity. We don’t see negative comments about his performances, nor is there any talk of a decline in the sales of his music. Jack’s fall is, therefore, more personal in nature. However, to make this completely realistic, they would have to occur much more frequently outside of the public eye instead of, for example, live at the Grammy Awards.
It is this part of the film that sticks too faithfully to the storyline first developed in What Price Glory back in 1926, and since it does not deviate from that pattern, it leaves many things undeveloped. The justifiably maligned Rock of Ages did a better job at exploring the disappointment of being turned into a pop star when your heart is in rock and roll, and at a time when internet stars and the winners of singing contests struggle to build a truly devoted following (Even Kelly Clarkson found it difficult to sell out a stadium tour), Ally’s meteoric ability to draw packed stadium shows is less realistic than it would have been in the 1980s and 1990s.
What A Star Is Born succeeds at above all is presenting viewers with an accurate view of the effects of addiction and how even those who are well aware of its devastating potential can fall prey to the notion of love’s absolute ability to better someone. I suspect many viewers have themselves been or known one of these characters, either wanting no part of addiction or finding themselves plunging deep into the abyss. I know I have, and because of that, I recognized both Ally’s inability to completely separate herself from a situation she knew all too well could end disastrously and her confidence that she could provide the solution. Sadly, it is the part of A Star Is Born that seems the most permanent. Here we are, watching the fifth version of this story, and this is the part that resonates the most. There’s something deeply telling about that. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
3 stars

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