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Each generation has its own version of A Star Is Born, a timeless tale (prefigured by George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood?) of intersecting career trajectories. In the 1930s, William Wellman directed Janet Gaynor as the young actress on the way up who falls for alcoholic fading idol Fredric March. Judy Garland and James Mason reprised the roles in Cukor’s 1954 classic, setting a musical template mirrored in subsequent versions. Barbra Streisand famously wanted Elvis to star opposite her in Frank Pierson’s 70s remake, and it still breaks my heart that Presley never got to play what would surely have been his defining screen role (Kris Kristofferson landed the part of a rock star in decline.)
Now, taking the tale to a 21st-century audience, we have Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper: the former in her first big-screen starring role, the latter making his startlingly assured directorial debut (he also produced, co-wrote the script and contributed to song composition). Capturing the slow grind of touring and the speedy ups and downs of pop stardom can be a notoriously tricky business. But from its uncannily realistic performance footage to pinpoint observations about modern in-ear monitors (“it’s just in my head; I need to be here”), this new incarnation of an old story paints a painfully precise portrait of life seen from the other side of the stage.
Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a grizzled, axe-wielding country-rocker who stumbles out of a gig and into a late-night drag bar in search of booze (“They got alcohol? Then it’s my kinda place”). Here he sees Ally (Lady Gaga, brilliant) singing La Vie en Rose. It’s a show-stopping turn, striking a chord with the tinnitus-tormented Maine, who thinks he’s found an artist with “something to say and a way to say it”. But Ally, who hides her own songwriting light under a bushel, thinks the music industry is full of men who say: “You sound great, but you don’t look so great.” So Maine, in an act of both sacrifice and salvation, foists Ally on stage in front of his adoring crowd, with spectacular results.
For one enchanted moment, their chemistry is perfect, with each firing the other’s dreams (“It’s been a long time since he played like that,” says Jackson’s long-suffering brother, Bobby). But these star paths are crossed rather than entwined. He’s dependent on a self-destructive cocktail of steroid injections, booze and boot-crushed pills. As for her, fame brings its own baggage, as pop-savvy manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) moulds her image with new dancers and hairdos and publicity photos that “don’t even look like me”.
Beyond the jokes about her unmarketable nose, there’s more than a touch of Streisand’s Funny Girl persona in Lady Gaga’s thrillingly spiky performance. We know from her pop pedigree that she can cut it as an onstage sensation, but it’s her more down-at-heel scenes (taking out the trash in a soul-crushing job) that really impress. Never once did I doubt that the rock’n’roll high life (popping corks on Jack’s private plane) was a new and astonishing experience for this real-life megastar. Significantly, Ally has the cover of Carole King’s Tapestry framed on her bedroom wall and there’s a hint of the King-inspired 1996 film Grace of My Heart in her progress from songwriter to recording star, particularly in a lovely scene in which Maine suggests using a piano keyboard to unlock her natural studio voice.
Yet for all his support, Maine is unsettled by Ally’s success, and the independence it brings her (“why can’t I be enough?”). A poignant shot of him watching as the increasingly Gaga-esque Ally rehearses an angular routine casts him as a wounded old bear lost in a futuristic neon world, his reddened face counterposed with the cold blue light of an alien environment. It’s as if he’s wandered out of his own movie and into hers. Elsewhere, the narrative’s infamous awards ceremony outrage is revisited in excruciating hues that will have you hiding you face in your hands.
Strong supporting turns include Sam Elliott as Bobby, the brother from whom Maine apparently “stole” his voice, Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s protective yet clumsily undermining father and Dave Chappelle as an old musician friend of Jackson’s who found a way out of all the craziness. Expect to see A Star Is Born nominated in numerous categories in the forthcoming awards season, not least for acting, direction and songwriting. Its Oscar-bait earworm tune may be entitled Shallow, but the film itself is as deep and resonant as Bradley Cooper’s drawl, and as bright as Lady Gaga’s screen future.
Source: The Guardian
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