A Star is Born

Around 20 years ago, there was all this excitement because the Beatles recorded and released a new song. They got a recording of an unreleased John Lennon track and Paul, George, and Ringo all went into the studio to add lyrics and instruments to it. Everyone raved about the tune “Free as a Bird” and it even won a Grammy. As a Beatles fanatic, I enjoyed hearing the song, but was a bit underwhelmed. Perhaps because of all the hype.

I had that same feeling with this fourth version of A Star is Born. All the critics that saw it before me were raving about it, talking about Oscar nominations and how great Lady Gaga was in her acting debut, and how great Bradley Cooper was directing his first movie.

I never saw David O. Selznick’s 1937 original or the 1954 version with Judy Garland and James Mason (my wife assures me it’s great). We both hated the 1976 version. I dug Kris Kristofferson’s boozy swagger, but I just couldn’t get passed Barbra Streisand’s ugly hairstyle.

Lady Gaga may have Babs’ nose, but not that perm. She probably felt vulnerable making this movie, without her normal stage outfits and makeup, but it served her well. Her performance was brilliant. Although I think it’s a lot easier for a singer to act, than for an actor to sing. So even though Bradley Cooper doesn’t have the best singing voice (it’s got a Springsteen vibe), it’s serviceable, and he had the harder part (add on to the fact that he co-wrote, directed, and produced the picture). I’d love to see Gaga get an Oscar nomination, and Cooper snag one for his raw, and tender direction of this picture.

It’s also nice that the supporting cast is given some stuff to do. Sam Elliott plays the tour manager, and long-suffering brother. It’s funny because when the movie first started, I leaned into my wife and said, “Cooper is talking like a mix of Jeff Bridges and Kris Kristofferson.”

She responded, “I think he sounds more like Sam Elliott.”

So it was perfect for them to be brothers.

Gaga’s dad is played by Andrew Dice Clay, which will probably shock people that just know him from his crude stand-up comedy in the ‘80s; but those of us that saw him in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine a few years ago, realize he’s got some acting chops.

Gaga’s friends at the drag bar worked wonderfully. Some directors would’ve gone with cheap jokes at the drag queens’ expense. Instead, a slightly inebriated Jackson Maine (Cooper) has fun making conversation with them and flirting with Ally (Gaga), who knocked out the crowd with her rendition of La Vie En Rose (a nice small touch had her singing a Judy Garland song as she leaves work in the opening).

Another nice touch has them spending an evening together that doesn’t involve sex. They’re walking around parking lots talking, and writing songs. It’s strange how more filmmakers don’t realize how it makes things so much more romantic when we’re watching characters getting to know each other and really fall for each other, instead of just jumping into bed. It reminded me of the treatment of the characters in Before Sunrise (Ethan Hawke). And speaking of Ethan Hawke, in his movie about country singer Blaze Foley, he did something that Cooper should’ve done in this. Given us a few more scenes where Jackson wasn’t drunk and showed his charming side. He was drunk about 90% of the movie, and it would’ve made him a more interesting character to show his sober side. Especially since, one of the great things about the Ally character is…she doesn’t take his crap. It was refreshing that she was written as a strong character. At one point early on, she warns him not to let something happen again or she’s done.

I saw one of the rare reviews of this movie that was critical. The writer claimed the two worked well onstage, but had no chemistry when they weren’t singing. I disagree. When they weren’t onstage, often times they were dealing with his demons. It’s hard for a couple to look like they have “chemistry”, when they’re fighting over the chemicals he’s putting in his body.

Gorgeous cinematography from Matthew Libatique, who has worked a lot with Darren Aronofsky and Spike Lee (including the filmed play Passing Strange, by the most underrated singer/songwriter ever — Stew). Libatique has filmed lots of music related projects over the years, and he nailed it, often putting us right on stage with the energy of the performances. And speaking of music related things, it also helped that the songs were good. One of my complaints about La La Land and The Greatest Showman, is that the songs just weren’t good enough. When you’re making a movie about a man and woman falling in love over songs — I want it be like it was in Once. In that department, this film delivered.

The first half of the movie was more enjoyable. The second half becomes predictable (even for those millennials that don’t know the original story, it’s not hard to guess the direction it’s going).

The songs were great — Always Remember Us This Way, Diggin’ My Grave, Shallow, and I’ll Never Love Again (which has an incredible edit that’s a brilliant decision by Cooper, which has it showing us the raw version being performed on piano). It was also a smart move getting Lukas Nelson to play on many of the tracks. Some of the songs heard in the movie included the Allman Brothers in a cop bar, and the Beastie Boys at an after concert party in a hotel.

The movie does have a few missteps. The casting of Dave Chappelle was distracting, and I’m not sure how they knew each other. Perhaps they could’ve made him a blues musician Main worked with years earlier. Give us something.

I also think one fight the couple had was rather mean-spirited. Jackson calls her ugly, which I don’t see his character doing. It would’ve worked better if, while she’s in the bathtub and he comes in to give her crap, he says that her record sucks because of the autotune and overproduction and “Who are you trying to be, the next Britney Spears?” Because the movie does allude to her becoming a different type of performer, with choreographed dancers, etc.

There were a couple of scenes that had me crying my eyes out. One of them has Jackson telling his brother “It was you I idolized, not dad,” after a big fight they had. I wouldn’t dare spoil the other moments, but bring your Kleenex. And don’t dismiss this movie just because it’s a remake. I mean, in the ‘70s when Van Halen’s debut album came out, we all loved it. It didn’t bother us that they covered The Kinks “You Really Got Me” because Eddie shredded on guitar (although I never could figure out why they covered “You’re No Good” on their second album; that’s another rant for another time).

3 ½ stars out of 5.