WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
The third remake of the 1930s classic, this modern retelling of a Star is Born tells the story of a troubled and ageing rock star, named Jackson “Jack” Maine, who finds a new lease on life when he discovers a promising young singer/songwriter, Ally, by accidentally and drunkenly stumbling into the drag bar where she has a regular spot covering other people’s songs. All it takes is one performance of La Vie En Rose and he is smitten. The two quickly fall in love, even as he discovers that she is in possession of a keen songwriting talent to match her knockout vocal skills and stage presence. Shortly after convincing her to join him on stage to sing some of her own songs, Ally is discovered by a music manager who puts her on a quick and dirty road to guaranteed pop-stardom. As her career sky-rockets, though, Jack is torn between his love for Ally and his jealousy of her new-found stardom – and that’s before his alcoholism and self-destructiveness threatens to sink both their lives.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Because a Star is Born was shown to the media literally the night before it was set to open in South African cinemas, I am writing this fresh after having seen the film. I mention this because I would have liked to go back and watch at least one of the past versions of the film (which I didn’t want to do before seeing the latest version as I wanted to approach it as, I’d wager, most of the audience would: without having previous knowledge of films that are between forty-five and eighty-five years old!) and to have had some time to let this truly remarkable piece of cinema sink in before reviewing it but, alas, that was not to be.
Without knowledge of its very famous predecessors and without the benefit of my giving the film its due diligence, though, it’s still not exactly hard to give a Star is Born the highest possible recommendation. It is long – though still about an hour shorter than the Judy Garland version! - and it is quite leisurely paced but it’s a film that works its magic on you almost from the get go and doesn’t stop until it lands its final, emotionally potent punch just as the credits are about to roll. It’s a bitter-sweet story of love, music and personal demons that is brought to vivid life by a witty script, pitch-perfect performances, assured direction and some pretty great (and occasionally, and quite intentionally, not so great) musical numbers.
At the centre of all this, amazingly, is Bradley Cooper. Whoever would have thought that the guy who rose to fame in a series of roles as slimy douchebags in fairly dopey comedies would become such a creative powerhouse? We already saw Cooper’s serious acting chops in the superb Silver Lining Playbook but he reaches new heights as Jackson Maine, mixing well-worn rock star clichés with an empathic and subtle portrait of a good man at war with his own worst tendencies. That he does this while also co-writing the script and making his début as both an instantly accomplished director and really damn good vocalist (and guitarist?) is, frankly, kind of insane. And, oh yes, just for good measure – and for character-driven and thematic reasons that are revealed as the film unfolds – he also completely alters his voice throughout the film to sound uncannily like co-star and on-screen brother, Sam Elliot.
This isn’t, however, to overlook Lady Gaga in her feature-film acting début as Ally. She may well be playing a character that seems, for all the world, to be a fictionalised version of herself but she brings the sort of nuance and pure, unbridled acting chops to the role that is seldom, if ever, seen in pop-stars-turned-actors. Further, as someone who has never had any time for her over-produced, sterile and oddly generic pop music and has, as of yet, not listened to her diversions (evolutions?) into “real” music, I found her to be a revelation on a musical level too. Again, it’s hard not to see parallels between the transformation of Ally from humble club singer to international megastar and Gaga’s own transformation from Stefani Germanotta to the phenomenon that is Lady Gaga, but who knew she was this good a singer and this utterly captivating and sympathetic in a stripped-down, grounded persona? Everyone, I’m sure, but not me.
What is especially interesting about the film is that, though the “star” of the title clearly refers to Ally/Gaga, it’s not entirely clear who the star of the film itself actually is. Is it Jack’s story that is reflected through Ally’s ascent to stardom or is it Ally’s story told from Jack’s point of view? This may seem a failing in the storytelling but this murkiness of viewpoint is crucial in allowing the film to transcend the clichés that have permeated this genre for decades – quite possibly as a result of the original a Star is Born.
Take, for example, the inevitable point in the film where Ally is faced with that perennial question of commerce vs. art that was bound to crop up in this sort of story. By showing this conflict mostly through the viewpoint of Jack and leaving Ally’s own take on the subject largely unsaid – though hardly unclear – this old cliché becomes something that feels fresh and, dare we say it, subtly handled. The film is filled with this sort of subversion of cliché and is a large part of why something this familiar lands up feeling so vital and exciting.
Ironically, it’s precisely this resistance to cliché that is actually responsible for my one possible misgiving about the film: the ending is kind of unsatisfying. It’s impossible to talk about this in any sort of details for fear of spoilers but I felt somewhat wrong-footed and uneasy as I left the cinema; not quite fully won over, despite all of the film’s general excellence and real emotional power. And yet, I’m about 90% sure that this slight apprehension isn’t a failing of the film but of how unprepared I was for just how untidy and elliptical the ending was.
It hits hard on an emotional level but it doesn’t wrap its narrative up in a nice bow, hit us with a clear and on-the-nose “message” or even provide an “aha!” moment of thematic resolution. Not that some or all of these things are entirely absent, and it’s not that it hits you with a WTF ending ala No Country For Old Men or Mulholland Drive but there’s a subtlety to the storytelling here that belies both the film’s unabashed emotionalism and the fact that this particular story is, technically speaking, something we have – almost literally – seen time and time again (and again).
It’s simply a marvellous, uplifting and heartbreaking piece of work that, being a remake of a remake of a remake as directed by the guy from the Hangover and starring a pop star with limited acting experience, has little right to be anywhere this good. I can’t wait to see what Bradley Cooper – and Lady Gaga – do next.