Remaking a film takes guts, especially when that film becomes well regarded. It’s even more difficult the 2nd time. A 3rd remake feels excessive unless you can inject something really new into the story. In that regard, the Bradley Cooper directed, written, and vehicle, A Star Is Born may not meet the expectations of some. However, many have heralded the feature as one of great interest in the Oscar race. To be clear, this movie will do well with awards bodies, especially as some films falter in the closing months. Yet there are still moments and ideas this iteration of A Star Is Born falls short on, making it a very good, but not perfect film.
The new version of A Star Is Born opens on aging rock star Jackson Maine (Cooper), who immediately showcases his propensity for drinking and drugging from the word go. However, his walk on stage immediately injects energy into the film, placing audiences in what feels like a live concert venue. The music echoes throughout the theater, and the crowd roars to life in a way that will be shocking to many audience members. Meanwhile, Ally (Lady Gaga) leaves her shift as a waitress, heading for a drag bar that lets her perform. When Jackson stops off at the bar for a drink, he witnesses Ally’s cover of “La Vie en Rose” (sung in French). The two spend the rest of the night together, culminating in Jackson asking Ally to come to his next show. The two put their hooks in each other, and we follow the relationship through Ally’s rise and Jackson’s inevitable fall.
For those unaware, this concept has been at the heart of every version of A Star is Born. You can even count The Artist, the Best Picture winner from 2011, in that camp. The story does not have much originality to it, other than Cooper and fellow writers Eric Roth and Will Fetters modernizing the tale. Yet this film does not focus too much on the writing (sometimes to its detriment, but more on that later). Instead, this film is an acting showcase unlike few we’ve seen in recent years.
The two leads absolutely carry this film through their charismatic and charming performance. Cooper turns in a career-best performance, pulling out all the stops in the process. His gruffness in his voice helps sell the transformation, even as the drinking and drug use struggle to feel believable at times. While he never gets verbally belligerent, outside of a single scene, Cooper does a fairly good job of showcasing someone many would not consider an alcoholic. The sell for me on Cooper were some of the emotional beats. This mostly comes out when Sam Elliott enters scenes as Jackson’s older brother Bobby (they kind of skate past the fact Jackson’s 60+-year-old father impregnated a 17-year-old, which itself is a bit problematic). Cooper clearly wanted this role to shine, and as the writer/director he gave himself a lot to pull off. Luckily, he’s up to the task.
Lady Gaga, however, steals this movie right out from under Cooper. She’s excellent throughout, shining as a performer on stage and off. She disappears into the role, often showcasing true subtly in the performance. It’s a very natural performance, far from what we expect from Gaga as a musician. She imbues Ally with hope and true love for Jackson, and this never feels inauthentic. While Cooper can sell a relationship, even if the chemistry is off, it is uncertain if Gaga could. Luckily, this is not a problem at all, and Gaga pushes every cast member around her to be better.
The supporting cast features some great performances as well. How anyone can walk out of this film and not sing the praises of Elliot is beyond me. The legendary western actor has truly turned in amazing roles over the past five years, but he is something else here. There are nods to the complexities of his career, even breaking down his voice and style. Yet Elliott’s most powerful scene is a non-verbal one, which will break down even the most heartless man.
Anthony Ramos of Hamilton fame shows off bright shining energy as Gaga’s best friend. Her father, played by comedian Andrew Dice Clay, exudes happiness and excitement for his daughter. Despite hints at a troubled past, his love and affection are a breath of air. Dave Chappelle feels effortless in his role, making you question why he does not take on straight dramatic work. He’s excellent in very limited screen time.
All of this sounds excellent, but here’s the problem. The narrative takes a rather sizeable dip as it moves from hour one to hour two. The first 45 minutes or so of the film are amazing. We get the concert footage, real emotional beats between the families, and foreboding about Jackson’s eventual downfall. We also get “The Shallow,” the one truly excellent song in the film. That moment works better in the film than on the recording, yet not walk away with the Oscar good.
After Ally meets her future manager Rez (Rafi Gavron), the momentum stops. We get some great moments, such as Jackson bringing a piano in to help Ally play the music. Yet the film gets bogged down in the mundanity of fame. The initial rush quickly disappears, and the melodrama seeps into the frame. Jackson really begins to go off the deep end, and things change in an unrealistic amount of time.
For example, Jackson begins the show by playing a sold-out crowd in California, then a massive crowd at Coachella. Somewhere on the tour, Ally gets an offer to make the record. Before her record is even released, Jackson begins playing paid gigs at conventions. Then, he’s completely sidelined before the following Grammys. It’s unclear what kind of rock star would drop off this quickly without really blowing relationships, something we get no hint of during this run. The narrative begins to hit beats out of convenience to the plot. Perhaps a “La La Land” style flash forward would have done the trick.
While this happens, we also experience uninteresting songs and performances. Al the power of the early performances disappear. The film begins to rage about pop music, demonizing Ally for performing it at all (a classic, but extremely thin argument that pop takes no talent). The music during this section is actively bad, and while the movie wants you to believe it would be popular, there’s almost no way Ally would reach the level of fame she does with the jokes of the songs she performs. For about 40 minutes, we struggle in this section of the story, before the feature closes with genuine emotion and performances. However, you can’t just have a crappy 2nd act and ignore it. Otherwise, Star Wars: Rogue One might be the best film in that franchise.
Beyond the performances, there’s also a lot to like from the crafts. The cinematography from DP Matthew Libatique really brings the stage to life as a moving and squirming being. He uses lens flares well to highlight scenes periodically. It’s much more than just concert footage, and it does a lot of storytelling throughout the film. The songs are fine, with some undeniably catchy tunes. Outside of “The Shallow,” there does not appear to be another massive hit on the album. This hurt some of the film’s believability, especially in the pop-heavy scenes.
Overall, A Star is Born should be seen as a very good but maybe not great film. It likely deserves the Best Picture nomination it will get, even if it won’t make my personal ballot. On the other hand, the performances from Gaga, Elliott, and Cooper are amazing. This feature shows a lot of promise for a first-time director like Cooper, and that should make him that much better the next time out. Fingers crossed he jumps back in the director’s chair soon. Frankly, that’s where his true future lies.