A Star is Born is the third remake of the 1937 film of the same title. Or maybe its the fourth, if you consider that the original was itself very similar to the 1932 What Price Hollywood? Or perhaps even the fifth, adding in the Bollywood version, Aashiqui 2 from 2013. I read a rather glowing review of this film, which set my mind on watching it when it came out on DVD. The review, among its other praise, suggested that the latest version was an improvement over the previous iterations (none of which I have seen, I should add). It also received a lot of attention during Oscar season. It is now out and so I finally watched.
It leaves me wondering why I did so.
Now, it is not a bad film, really. Part of my issue may be the hype that it received, leaving me to expect more from the movie than it had to give. Also, again not having watched any of the earlier versions, I didn’t know what the story was about. That may have also lead me to expect something other than what was on offer. In the 1970s, I was not in the mood for a steamy romance, and so never really felt the urge to watch the Kris Kristofferson/Barbara Streisand production. Oddly, I have always mixed Barbara Streisand’s A Star is Born with Bette Midler’s The Rose (a Janis Joplin-inspired story). Strange, because I knew they were different actresses. I guess the songs (Evergreen, with its “Like a rose” lyric, was the big song from A Star is Born) sound similar enough that it circumvented any logical skills I may or may not have possessed at a younger age.
The original version of the story, if we start with What Price Hollywood?, was (I think it goes without saying, but…) about the movie business. It was released at a time when “insider” stories of the movie business were having a run of popularity. It is said that the relationship was based on silent film star Colleen Moore and her difficult marriage to film producer John McCormick. Barbara Stanwyck’s marriage to actor Frank Fay is also cited as an inspiration.
In the 1958 version, staring Judy Garland, the focus turns to music. Garland still is an actress but, in this version, makes her career in musicals. From that we pivot to the 1976 version, where the characters are rock stars, not film actors. The 2018 version sticks with the world of music, although it also borrows pieces of its story from earlier iterations.
On the plus side, Lady Gaga (playing “Star” Ally) does a fine job with her singing and has co-written some reasonably-decent original material for the film. Perhaps ironically, the key to her performance is to come off as something of a “regular person,” with a regular person’s flaws (much is made about her nose). Bradley Cooper’s music is also decent enough and he apparently did his own singing. Many songs are featured in their entirety, meaning a good chunk of the movie has one or both of these actors “performing.”
The film also seems to try to deal with the question of what makes stardom happen. Ally’s father, played by Andrew “Dice” Clay (!), repeatedly tells versions of the story of how he knew guys who could sing better than Sinatra but lacked his star quality. Ally’s manager (actor Rafi Gavron) pushes the idea that it’s the management of the image that matters; he can “make you a star.” Cooper’s character advises Ally that it is about telling something important to the world. “Everybody’s talented,” he explains to her, but the key is using your talent and the platform that you’re given to say something worth hearing. Doing that, he suggests, will make you a star.
This all might actually be a theme that transcends the rather common tragic-love-story which paints the surface of this film. Perhaps Cooper really did have something to say on this subject but, if he did, it seems like this theme was never resolved. The movie asks the question but doesn’t seem to explore the answers. Maybe that’s the best we can do. Is any one of these angles getting this right? Is it all of them, either in combination or each in different circumstances? I expect there are a lot of actors, rock stars, and other celebrities who wonder, “why me?” Maybe it was felt better to let the audience seek their own answers.
Beyond the singing though, and without real development of these other themes, there isn’t that much left. Yes, Cooper’s Jackson Maine is a drunk. In fact, Bradly Cooper had his own battle with the bottle and knows something of his character’s struggle. Besides being a drunk (which was pretty obvious from the moment she met him), he doesn’t seem all that bad. This also undermines the theme of abusive relationship and co-dependency which, while it could have been explored, simply wasn’t. Yes, there is a fight where he calls her “ugly,” but that strikes me as rather tame as far as drunken fights between lovers go. There’s some suggestion that his criticism of her pop-music image is considered an attempt to sabotage her success. Or is he dead on? Is this part of that theme I’m talking about above; he doesn’t want her “selling out” to the industry without saying what she needs to say? And is he right or wrong? Again, these questions are left to the viewer.
She tells him to quit the drinking. He doesn’t quit drinking. He gets hit with some harsh reality at the wrong time and he departs the mortal coil. Their love did not conquer all. Am I missing something here?
I was also a little frustrated with its treatment, perhaps trivialization, of the musical process. Perhaps it’s coming off the Queen movie, where an emphasis on the creative process was integral to the film. We see hints, in that film, that Freddie Mercury worked on Bohemian Rhapsody for at least five years before recording it with Queen. I recall reading that Tom Scholz worked on More than a Feeling for five years. Of course, Freddie Mercury also says he wrote Crazy Little Thing Called Love in “5 or 10 minutes.” While the mileage definitely does vary it still feels that A Star Is Born trivializes the creative process.
The big song from this A Star Is Born, Shallow, is heard in a partial form by Jackson/Cooper in a parking lot while he is wrecked. By the following evening, he has taught the entire song to his band and then brings Ally/Gaga out to sing it without warning her ahead of time. The result comes together flawlessly. Shallow is neither a Bohemian Rhapsody nor a More than a Feeling, but I’m sure it took some rehearsals for the band was able to play it live.
Several of the other songs seem to race from scribble notes on a sheet of paper to finished form during the course of a live concert.
Similarly, we all understand that Ally/Gaga has barriers to finding success that the love of Jackson/Cooper pushes her through. It isn’t much pushing. Ally says she can’t sing her own songs and, yet, within minutes is singing a near-finished version of Shallow to Jackson in the parking lot. The very next night she says, “I’m not going out there.” It is less than a minute later that she is on stage in front of a stadium crowd, singing her song. Are we supposed to suspend disbelief and accept the inspirational aspects of their relationship? Or is it more cynical commentary on myth versus reality in show business; it’s not who you are but who you know that counts?
I also have to wonder how a half-deaf musician with a substance abuse problem manages to play concerts without screwing them up. There’s some implication that Jackson/Cooper is losing it, but no matter how trashed he is, his on-screen performances are impeccable. I’ve heard far worse in nightclubs from bands who are supposed to be on their game. Now, I imagine it is easier for a top-billed, professional musician to whip through his stuff while pickled than it is for an amateur to do the same and maybe I don’t appreciate the extent to which your average rock star is trashed while playing. It still seems that something obvious was glazed over here.
Like the film’s five Oscar nominations with no wins, this one, at first glance, seems to present all the pieces of a momentous film experience but then just doesn’t quite pull it all together.