"Almost every single person has told me that they liked the way I sounded but they didn't like the way I looked."
Credit where credit is due, there is a lot to be said about the staying power of a story which has been told in four separate iterations across several decades. Both the original from 1937 and the first official remake in 1954 are renowned classics, whereas the 1976 version is a melodramatic disaster. However it’s that iteration which this modern retelling seems to borrow the most from, which is actually a smart choice in the long run since improving upon a failed film is much easier than trying to live up to a widely acclaimed classic.
Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a famous country singer battling with drug and alcohol addiction is amazed by the talent of an unknown performer called Ally (Lady Gaga), whom he encourages to step into the spotlight. But as her career begins to flourish, Jackson finds himself embroiled in personal struggles that could lead him to completely self-destruct.
Despite the obvious timeless appeal that the story of ‘A Star is Born’ possesses, this specific version is one that has come to fruition after decades of being stuck in development hell. Since 40 years have passed since the last iteration there is a lot of open room from which this version could potentially take the story. It’s therefore somewhat disappointing that this 21st century retelling sticks very closely to the framework of its predecessors, barely deviating in terms of the broader structure and narrative of the story as well as the dynamics that have been cemented with each new account.
I would not want to come across as if I’m criticising ‘A Star is Born’ for what it does not do rather than judge the film by way of what it is. However I just feel as if there is something to take note of in terms of how ‘A Star is Born’ fails to give both of its leads equal footing. As a character Ally has plenty of musical opportunities and a strong opening characterisation, but as the film progresses her development feels frustratingly static. The dramatic crux of her arc seems to be side lined until a somewhat awkward addition to the third act that closes the movie. That final pay off is effective but also creates a somewhat awkward pace to the final narrative strokes the film has to offer.
Perhaps this would not be as big of an issue for me were it not for the fact that the main thematic pulse of this (and every) version of ‘A Star is Born’ is that duality of their dynamic. It stresses not only the downward spiral of Jackson but also the ascending stardom of Ally, which feels a little short-changed when the two are not presented on equal footing for the movie’s entire runtime. By the halfway point in ‘A Star is Born’ the power dynamic between its two leads has shifted but while Jackson’s character continues to garner screen time and development, Ally stands relatively still.
That being said there are still many truly phenomenal aspects to ‘A Star is Born’, many of them being the performances of its incredibly talented cast. Bradley Cooper excellently communicates the tragic side of Jackson’s character, even at his most charismatic and endearing there is an underlying sadness to proceedings. Gaga herself is outstanding both for the musical aspects of the movie (obviously) but also the dramatic subtleties that come with bringing a role like this to life. Her quiet vulnerability is conveyed perfectly to a point where her more powerful character moments, from the singing to the triumphant moments of self-confidence, are incredibly cathartic and fulfilling. The only thing that outshines Cooper and Gaga’s individual performances is their wonderfully endearing chemistry.
Meanwhile the supporting cast are just as strong as the leads, adding a layer if depth to the story by way of making the secondary characters of the story superbly empathetic. The actions of the protagonists have an added weight to them when they are shown to have an impact on the surrounding people as well as themselves. Sam Elliot is as charmingly sincere as always, evoking such poignancy with remarkably nuance. But while Elliot’s brilliance is hardly surprising, the fact that comedians like Dave Chapelle and Andrew Dice Clay are as affecting as they are through their performances is remarkable.
In terms of those involved though, Cooper is under scrutiny for two roles as he fills the slot of actor and director. The first act of ‘A Star is Born’ in immense command of craft from Cooper, utilising the story’s simplistic but effective story beats to tell a highly fulfilling narrative. It’s tightly controlled, emotionally resonant and visually complex storytelling that showcases great promise for Cooper as a filmmaker. Unfortunately it also seems that as the script becomes somewhat convoluted and repetitive, so does the direction which is rarely as focussed or as innovative as it was during that incredible first act. Perhaps that in itself is a meta commentary for the film’s narrative, in that the story of these two characters is never as dazzling as it was after that first encounter. But regardless it still doesn’t make for the most rewarding watch.
Despite coming apart slightly through it’s second and third act, the strength of its first lunge as wel as the incredible performances make ‘A Star is Born’ a crowd pleasing experience.