FILM REVIEW – A STAR IS BORN. With Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, Andrew Dice Clay. Written by Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters. Directed by Bradley Cooper. Rated PG – 13 for crude and sexual content throughout, language, some drug references and violence. 111 minutes.
Given what a giant step forward A STAR IS BORN is for its two leads, it’s not surprising that they went with such proven material. It’s the fifth film version of this story. It originated as “What Price Hollywood?” in 1932 and was followed by two remakes as “A Star is Born” in 1937 and 1954. The focus shifted from Hollywood to the music industry with the 1976 remake, and that’s where this new telling takes place.
Bradley Cooper, making his debut as a director, stars as Jackson Maine, a superstar singer who gives concerts in packed arenas. He’s at the top of his game, but suffers from several demons, including drug and alcohol dependency and the deterioration of his hearing. At the start of the story, he goes into a bar to get loaded, not caring when he discovers it’s a drag club.
That’s where he meets Ally (Lady Gaga), an aspiring singer who is so good she’s the only woman welcomed into the all-male drag show. Her rendition of “La Vie En Rose” sets the tone for the film. She and Jackson meet, and he’s taken by her obvious talent, even more so when he learns she’s also a songwriter. He uses his clout and star power to launch her career. As she takes off, he starts to falter, setting up the film’s tragic storyline. They’re in love, but her success becomes one more thing with which Jackson can’t cope.
The early stages of their relationship are touching. He treats her with respect and doesn’t try to use his celebrity to overpower her, physically or emotionally. She’s ambitious, but insecure and doesn’t know if she has what it takes. As their fortunes change, he has to deal with the fact that he may be holding her back, even as she remains devoted to him (while not letting him off the hook for his lapses). For those who have never seen the earlier movies – and the 1937 and 1954 versions are classics well worth watching – the last act may come as a surprise. It lacks the impact of the earlier films, but times have so changed that the original ending probably wouldn’t work today.
The film runs long (though shorter than the ’54 and ’76 films), yet Cooper shows a sure hand in taking us into this world and letting us in behind the scenes. As Jackson, he lets his character be sympathetic while also showing just how difficult a man he is, as in his relationship with his brother (Sam Elliott) who manages his concerts.
The real revelation here is Lady Gaga. Although she’s done many videos and some television, her few film appearances have been relatively brief. Here she joins Cooper in carrying the film. She’s especially effective in the early scenes where she’s feisty but uncertain about her future. Her scenes with Andrew Dice Clay as her father serve to sketch in her backstory, with Dad warning about talented singers who don’t get the breaks, clearly referring to himself.
“A Star Is Born” is a time-tested story, and in this new version more than four decades after the last one, will undoubtedly work again for today’s audiences. If it doesn’t quite achieve greatness, it does show that Cooper’s gamble – both in stepping in behind the camera and giving Lady Gaga her first starring film role – has paid off handsomely.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.