It’s hard to go into A Star is Born with few expectations. After all, this is a cinematic remake with two well-known stars leading the cast. Earlier versions of this story include the 1937 adaptation starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, the 1954 version featuring Judy Garland and James Mason and the 1976 one with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in the lead roles. Even before these versions, there was the 1932 drama What Price Hollywood?, which told an undeniably similar story.
With so many versions to choose, one would think that retelling this oft-told tale would seem superfluous. However, with this newest version, director Bradley Cooper is able to rise above the familiar story to create something wholly unique and appealing.
In re-inventing the way this story is told, Cooper — who co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Roth and Will Fetters — also re-invents the way that we see his two main actors. Like the concept of A Star is Born, the two main actors in this film are well known. Bradley Cooper is a four-time Oscar nominee who audiences have seen dozens of times before (in films like The Hangover,Silver Linings Playbookand American Sniper). Lady Gaga is an international singing superstar with pop hits like Poker Faceand Bad Romance.
Audiences may think they know what these two performers are capable of but this feature shows otherwise.
The film begins with the aging rock star Jackson (Cooper) performing before a huge crowd. After his performance, he drops into a bar for a drink, only to discover an enormously talented artist on stage. The multi-talented Ally (Lady Gaga) spends a few hours with Jackson, with the duo discovering a unique respect for each other.
Cooper knows that the feature is built on the foundation of this relationship so for the film’s first thirty minutes, we watch as they drink together, collaborate with each other and connect with one another as people (Ally is one of the few people who sees Jackson as a person and not just as a celebrity). Their affection for each other is clear and beautifully-articulated so as the relationship builds, it’s easier to appreciate their story.
That story is a dramatic one and a heartbreaking one. Jackson struggles with an addiction to both alcohol and pills. It’s an addiction that Ally sees early on but one that she lives with, believing that he can control his worst instincts. As the story builds, the audiences watch as the couple struggle with the celebrity culture and the superficial push to make these artists fit a certain mold.
In these struggles, the director captures an undeniable rawness and strength in showing these characters in public settings and in intimate moments, where they reveal who they really are. “All you’ve got is you and what you want to say to people,” Jackson says to Ally in one of those quiet moments. There’s an entire subplot here about Ally losing her identity in the midst of a marketing campaign (to sell her image) but this feature handles that subplot with sensitivity and nuance, never telling the audience what to think. It only shows how this marketing push affects their relationship.
Another wonderful intimate scene is shared between Jackson and Bobby (an underrated Sam Elliott), two brothers who grow further and further apart.
The depth here is clearly aided by the leading actors but it’s also advanced by a tremendous supporting cast, which includes Sam Elliott in his small but pivotal role. Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle and Anthony Ramos also play crucial roles here, helping to provide a more complete and complex picture of Ally and Jackson.
One of the film’s most unforgettable moments is when Jackson asks Ally to join him on stage for a duet. Shocked by his insistence, Ally arrives at the mic and presents a completely different side to herself. That’s ultimately what this film greatly succeeds at.
This film takes its well-known story and its well-known actors and shows us something completely fresh and surprising. Aided by a great soundtrack and strong supporting performances, A Star is Born is an awe-inspiring but heartbreaking tale.
Review by: John Hanlon