'It takes a lot to change a man and it takes a lot to try; maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,' Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) sings to a stadium full of adoring fans. The booze and pill addled star doesn't realize he's predicting his short term future. After emptying his last bottle with an hour and a half's drive to go after his show, Jack asks his driver to stop at a random bar that turns out to be hosting its drag night. There is one female performer they consider one of their own, though, and when Ally (Lady Gaga) performs 'La Vie En Rose' Jack knows "A Star Is Born."
As it turns out, cowriter (with Will Fetters)/director Bradley Cooper's decision to remake a classic film for his directorial debut was a wise move, especially as he chose to team up with a singer with little acting experience as the actor takes on the role of a musician for the first time. The actors' support for each other translates on screen as real communion and their musical performances together are the film's highlight. But Cooper's tweaked the story so that Ally's rising fame affects his character more as a case of selling out to pop stardom than a diminishment of his own, the less inspired musical offerings of the second half deflating the movie's energetic vibe. There are a few other problems which keep the film from soaring to the heights of the great 1954 Judy Garland version (this one is more akin to the 1976 Kris Kristofferson/Barbara Streisand take). "Silver Linings Playbook's" editor Jay Cassidy often cuts away from scenes before we've felt their impact, like Jack's visit to his old family farm, and Jack's back story with a much older brother (Sam Elliott's Bobby) and an alcoholic father is muddled. The film is destined to be a crowd pleasing hit, but rapturous festival coverage has perhaps raised expectations too highly.
Jack's actually guided into the club by Ally's friend Ramon (Anthony Ramos, "Patti Cake$"), who stays by his side during her performance, then takes him backstage to meet her. He begins to draw her out and they head to another bar where Ally punches out a guy being too aggressive with Jack and Jack takes her to a supermarket for frozen peas to apply to her bruised knuckles. She declares him a gentleman and sings a couple of lines in the parking lot. 'Is that me?' he asks about her lyrics? He's found a born songwriter. The next night she and Ramon are flown to his next gig and she's shocked when he calls her on stage to perform the arrangement he's done of her own song.
If you've never seen one of the three prior versions, it's a show biz story as old as time, one half of a couple's career eclipsing the other's wrecking havoc on their relationship. The touchstones are here - the 'one more look at you' line, the bad behavior at an awards ceremony, the manager (Rafi Gavron's Rez Gavron here) who views the husband as a career obstacle - but Cooper's mixed things up a bit by including influential friends and family. As Ally's limo driving dad Lorenzo, an almost unrecognizable Andrew Dice Clay is aces revelling in his daughter's success in a career he once aspired to while Elliott, whose voice Cooper's Eddie Veder-like Jack impressively appropriates, is the picture of self-sacrificial support. Dave Chappelle's Noodles is a friend of Jack's who ditched the limelight for family, recognizing Ally as a potential stabilizing effect on his friend's life. Cooper's also given Jack tinnitus, an element which is worked into the film's sound design better than the story itself.
All the performances were filmed live (some at major music festivals, none lip synced) by director of photography Matthew Libatique, whose dynamic stage eye view of concerts lends them both intimacy and scope. Original music includes the couple's theme, 'Shallow' (Lady Gaga with Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando and Andrew Wyatt) and Jackson's 'Maybe It’s Time' (Jason Isbell), both serious awards contenders. Lady Gaga's fans are sure to love her here, but while her performance is fine, it is not as complexly shaded as Cooper's more moving work.
Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a country rock star who achieved on-stage greatness but whose life is a mess. He meets ingénue Ally (Lady Gaga) and, knowing she has real talent, gives her the chance of a lifetime in “A Star Is Born.”
One of the great films, even for someone who is not a fan of musical dramas, is the 1954 telling of “A Star Is Born,” starring Judy Garland and James Mason and directed by George Cukor. The original version, from 1937, was all drama and the 1976 adaptation glowed with the star power of Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, but neither came close to the Judy classic.
Bradley Cooper makes his feature director and co-scribe debut and co-stars with Lady Gaga in her first “movie star” role, taking the classic story to the here and now. Cooper is Jackson Maine, a good, old-fashioned rocker who has fame and fortune, but the rest of his life is blowing in the wind. Booze and drugs dominate his life off-stage and are increasingly affecting his on-stage life, too.
After one performance, the restless Jackson seeks drink and entertainment. He goes into a gay drag bar where he is stopped in his tracks by one of the acts – the very female Ally (Lady Gaga). He realizes that she has talent, a lot of talent, and invites her as his guest to his next concert. Ally struggles between her job and the glimmer of stardom and selects the latter. This decision is strengthened when Jackson calls her on stage to sing. You can guess what happens.
Cooper and his writing team credit William Wellman and Robert Carson, director and one of the writers of the 1937 original, on the film, but this update holds more to the Garland-Mason rendition. This “A Star Is Born” is, as expected, a musical drama of one star on the rise as another falls.
Cooper does a heartfelt job in telling the sentimental story of love and devotion. Jackson is a man troubled by the emptiness in his life, a void he fills with liquor and drugs. That emptiness, for a moment, is filled by Ally, her kindness and her talent. He recognizes that talent and launches Ally on the star path she once could only dream of. Anyone even vaguely familiar with this oft-told story knows what happens next.
Bradley Cooper gives a sad, melancholy spin to his Jackson Maine and, doing the performing and singing too, gives what is probably his best role to date. Lady Gaga casts aside her “superstar” persona and gives a solid, if not seasoned, performance as the rags to riches Ally. I never listened, consciously, to a Gaga song and am impressed by her great pipes.
While watching “A Star Is Born,” I was most enthused by the first half of the film than the second and did not realize why. Then, I figured it out. In the beginning, the story and music focused on Jackson and, as it played out and Ally comes on the scene, turns toward her story and music. I really enjoyed the rock’n’roll at the start but, as his career falls and hers rises, the music shifts to Ally. My enthusiasm diminished as the music shifted focus.
Cooper and his cast and crew aim high and almost hits the mark but, to me, falls short of its aspiration to be the best “A Star Is Born.” I give it a B.
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