The 4th time’s the charm. Another rendering of “A Star is Born” proves that the story endures for a new generation.
Starting with a loud concert performance in a large venue, Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born” rattles to life. It’s an immersive musical experience. The meandering narrative that follows lays a near flawless foundation for a love story centered around finding one’s artistic soul. And Lady Gaga is the real deal, with an award-worthy turn that easily ranks as one of the year’s most surprising and relatable.
In this modern telling of the classic Hollywood story, Cooper (also writing and directing here) plays country rock superstar Jackson Maine, whose addiction to alcohol has begun to affect his career. One night, after a performance, Maine wanders into an unusual nightclub and meets Ally (Lady Gaga). Her stellar performance leaves him smitten. The two escape to another late night watering hole, where Jackson pounds glasses of liquor but maintains sharp focus on Ally, a young talent in desperate need of a confidence booster.
“I don’t sing my own songs,” Ally tells him in a dry, matter-of-fact, defeated tone. The makeup and glamor that accompanied her earlier stage performance has given way to the plain girl underneath.
“Why?” He asks, his eyes trained intimately on her every pore.
Ally explains that her nose has held her back. Jackson asks if he can touch it, and Ally is immediately enchanted.
Let’s be honest, no matter what you do to Lady Gaga in order to transform her into the ordinary and stunted Ally, Gaga’s presence ensures that the character is undeniably attractive. However, Cooper manages to transcend that potential trap. He makes us believe that Jackson’s intentions aren’t skin deep. The rock star, who could land most any woman, is taken with the beauty of her gift, a voice that instantly captured his heart. And after many years of hard living in an unforgiving industry populated by hoards of attractive and talented people, Jackson has a uniquely qualified eye and somewhat fading ear for the real thing. In Ally, he thinks he’s found it.
The magic of this “A Star is Born” is that the lovers at the center of the drama have a mutual appreciation for the talent of the other that transcends sexual attraction. Sure, from what I remember of previous versions, the talent that bears stardom is a major focus, but this time, the process of creation is what really matters. The pressures of celebrity and fame eventually get in the way. And when Ally churns out a pop hit, based on superficial, sexually charged lyrics, Jackson is horrified. He saw in her substance that is now being subverted. Ally’s talent may be successfully exploited by music moguls, but her good nature remains uncorrupted. She never abandon’s Jackson the person, Jackson the artist. By contrast, it is Jackson that sees her as abandoning her inner voice—that uncompromising commitment to the music first, allowing everything else to just happen.
It’s the voice that haunts Jackson. His much older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott) was once a singer. Bobby now manages Jackson on the road. He acts as Jackson’s conscience. And when the two have disputes, we learn that the particular qualities of Jackson’s voice is a sore point. This plays both figuratively and literally in the film.
In playing Jackson, Bradley Cooper does something very risky. Not only does he sing all his own songs (many of which he also had a hand in writing), but he decides to mold his characterization around Elliott. It is certainly unusual that a supporting actor’s pre-existing persona provides the inspiration for the lead actor’s incarnation. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of such a technique—basing and inhabiting a fictitious character around a supporting actor’s mannerisms and attributes. But here it is, Cooper is playing a younger version of Elliott. And this choice is something of a masterstroke. The vocal intonations are perfect, and the body language even seems spot on.
Cooper’s impressive impersonation, not mimicry, had to put Elliott in an awkward position. How should he handle this? What he does is critical, because it shows a mature actor’s restraint based on experience—a metaphor for the movie’s narrative. He plays Bobby as an older, wiser version of Jackson, but without the torment of addiction that plagues his younger sibling. While recently we’ve seen an actor portray a younger Sam Elliott (in this year’s interesting “The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot”), in “A Star is Born” we are treated to a simultaneous display of two generations of the same character. They argue and perhaps come to terms with differences. Differences because as similar as the two brothers are, they have made some very divergent choices, which will forever divide them. One man has achieved fame that will endure for many generations, and the other man will just live out his days in that long shadow.
But in a film marked by many rich characterizations, highlighted by eclectic casting choices (comedians Dave Chappelle and Andrew Dice Clay appear in prominent roles, for example), what ultimately stands out is Gaga. Perhaps it is because Ally so very much reminds her of herself—the nose as a notable trait. While Lady Gaga was once thought of as the successor to the Material Girl’s crown, she isn’t some model-like beauty that neatly fits into a starlet category (and neither was Madonna, of course). When the makeup is removed, the painted on eyebrows peeled off, and the wardrobe toned down, she’s just a youngster from the neighborhood, someone you may know, an around the way girl, if I might be so bold to quote LL Cool J. She’s not someone who intimidates. She’s someone you want to get to know, because she makes you comfortable. What sets Ally apart, however, is the golden set of pipes. And in a film filled with great performances, it’s Gaga’s voice that rises above them all.
“A Star is Born” has been done before, and this version reminds us why the story keeps on being made. It’s a film about the artistic process and what happens to ordinary people when that process comes becomes too much to control.