Wednesday, October 3, 2018

'A Star Is Born' (2018) Movie Review

Did you know Lady Gaga is a phenomenal singer? Apparently only Bradley Cooper does, which is the basic premise for his directorial debut, yet another remake of A Star is Born. Which also happens to be yet another movie where a mediocre white dude is the only one who truly recognizes how talented, remarkable, and beautiful the central female figure is. So, that’s obnoxious. The movie is actually very good and emotional and romantic and all the other superlatives bandied about—to degrees—but there’s that one massive hurdle to get over, so your mileage may vary. 

After A Star is Born debuted on the fall film festival circuit, many people lauded it to the heavens and held it up as an Oscar frontrunner and all the usual things that so often happen when the festival goggles are on. While it features fantastic performances and shows Cooper has a more seasoned directorial hand than many first time helmers—and I’m sure at least one of the songs will walk away with end-of-year hardware—I also feel like I may be one of the few waving his hand and yelling about how it’s overrated. (Honestly, I keep thinking of it as “Classy Crossroads,” and yes, I’m talking about the Brittany Spears movie.)

Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a rock star wallowing in fame, excess, and alcoholism. When he discovers Ally (Lady Gaga), a young, talented plying her trade in anonymity in a drag club, the two fall in love, he helps her into the industry, and her profile inevitably eclipses his own as her career takes off and his star fades.

While it’s a familiar rise-and-fall narrative, the chemistry and relationship between Ally and Jack do the heavy lifting. Gaga and Cooper both deliver strong performances and play off of one another well. This is as good as Cooper has ever been when he’s not playing an animated racoon. Though Lady Gaga has had a few smaller roles, nothing indicated she had this in her, even if it does, at times, feel like she’s playing a thinly veiled version of herself. If she ever needs a break from being a huge pop star wearing meat dresses, she should have a long, lauded career in front of the camera. 

Though solid, A Star is Born often smacks of the overindulgent vanity project of a first-time director with few if any constraints. Threads hang loose and underdeveloped in favor of melodramatic scenes where Cooper drunkenly swaggers through the frame—one particular moment in his downfall, which is supposed to be him hitting bottom and break viewers’ hearts, made me laugh out loud. 

In the hands of frequent Darren Aronofsky cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, the film looks gorgeous, even if it does contain near-J.J.-Abrams-levels of lens flare during stage performances. And I do appreciate that, during musical scenes, Cooper at least looks like he’s playing—he either knows how to play guitar or can fake it well enough to pass. It’s a pet peeve of mine when musicians in movies have no idea how to even hold an instrument.

A Star is Born could use more time with arcs like the relationship between Jack and his much older brother, Bobby (a grizzled, world-weary Sam Elliott). And Ally’s relationship with her fame-seeking father (Andrew Dice Clay) is half-baked. The script—a collaboration between Cooper, Eric Roth, and Will Fetters—pushes those aside to focus on the details of Ally’s ascent to stardom. And that’s where the film’s main problems lie.

Ally and Jack’s courtship, burgeoning relationship, and him encouraging her to take the mic, work well. And the conclusion, even if it happens a bit too quick, builds and wraps up in satisfactory fashion. But the middle sags. Ally’s rise eventually becomes a generic music biz cautionary tale about staying true to yourself and your message. I don’t care that she has a shitty manager or record label execs think she has an ugly nose or they force background dancers on her or make her sing songs about butts. The pace spins out and drags, distracting from other story elements that could have packed much more emotional weight if given that time.

As a movie that revolves around music, it’s a safe assumption that A Star is Born showcases a number of songs. There’s a nice variety, from Ally performing “La Vie En Rose” in a club to Jack’s big arena shows to just him with a guitar in an empty room—again, I don’t know if you know this, but Lady Gaga is a pretty good singer and Cooper holds his own. Like I said, at least one is going to be in the conversation come awards season, and it’s not even my favorite. But it’s also a mixed bag. While some are great, others aren’t. A couple are supposed to sound like watered-down, soulless pop songs, but there’s one, coming at the emotional apex of the whole movie, that’s just wack as hell. 

In the movie, Bobby repeats that oft-heard aphorism that all music is basically the same twelve notes and that it’s not the notes themselves, it’s how you play them that make a song great. A Star is Born plays a familiar tune—it plays it well enough, but no matter what Cooper and company try, it’s a song we’ve heard before. Specifically in this case, three times before. And while it’s charming and easily watchable—even if the central conceit annoys the hell out of me—outside of a few elements, it doesn’t differentiate itself from previous versions or other similar narratives. To quote one of Jack’s songs, maybe it’s time to let the old ways die. [Grade: B]

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