'A Star Is Born': Film Review | Venice 2018

Heartfelt and gutsy.
10/5/2018

Bradley Cooper makes his directing debut and headlines opposite Lady Gaga in this third remake of the enduring romantic drama about the meteoric rise of one talent while another crashes and burns.

There's a lot to love in Bradley Cooper's entertaining remake of A Star is Born, including his convincing portrayal of a hard-drinking country rocker in some electrifying concert scenes, and the captivating debut in a big-screen leading role of Lady Gaga as the singer-songwriter whose career he launches, only to watch it quickly eclipse his own. The first-time director's grasp of pacing could be improved and the overlong movie can't quite sustain the energy and charm of its sensational start. But this is a durable tale of romance, heady fame and crushing tragedy, retold for a new generation with heart and grit.

A punchy trailer and a number of potential breakout original music elements, with vocals recorded live during filming, should steer this Warner Bros. October release to strong returns, along with the curiosity of Gaga's extensive fan base to see the pop superstar stretching her acting limbs.

Development of the remake dates back to 2011, with Clint Eastwood initially attached to direct Beyonce in the ascending star role and various big names approached to co-star. Cooper turns out to be a good fit, with an efficient, straightforward handle on directing duties and an actor's well honed instinct for intimate character shading and interaction. His natural charisma also enables him to soften the self-destructive edges of veteran musician Jackson Maine, locating the resilient humanity that celebrity, personal demons and alcohol and drug abuse haven't been able to crush. There's real warmth and a sexy spark in his onscreen chemistry with Gaga that makes their characters' instant connection believable.

Those establishing scenes are among the movie's best, particularly since Gaga completely sheds her pop persona and exhibits a scrubbed-clean, relaxed appeal and a deft balance of toughness and vulnerability as Ally, a struggling musician working as a waitress. Those qualities spare the movie from falling into the vanity-project trap of the last remake, the engorged 1976 version with Barbra Streisand that shifted the story from Hollywood to the music industry and provides the bones for this iteration. Cooper does bear similarities here to Streisand's co-star Kris Kristofferson, though he tones down the corrosive bitterness.

Some of the concert scenes were filmed at music festivals like Coachella, and there's a surge of excitement as Cooper's Jackson (Jack to his friends) crunches power chords on his guitar before a pumped-up arena crowd, launching into one of a handful of songs built around the theme of yearning for change. Slugging down whiskey in the back of his car after the show, he asks his driver to pull over at a random bar, where it turns out to be drag night.

In a lovely nod to Gaga's status as a queer icon, Ally, who used to wait tables at the joint, has a guest spot among the lip-syncing glamazons. She belts out a powerhouse rendition of "La Vie en Rose," making eye contact with Jack while doing some supine vamping on the bar. Encouraged by Ally's bosom buddy Ramon (Anthony Ramos from the original Hamilton cast), Jack hangs around after the show, sweetly smashed and affably mingling with the resident drag queens. There are echoes of what the movie does in terms of exploring a new side of Gaga when Jack peels off one of Ally's fake eyebrows, asking to see the real woman beneath the stage camouflage.

As their evening continues together, he learns that negative perceptions about her looks have inhibited her from performing her own material, while she discovers a melancholy man quietly hungering for something more. He makes her head spin by sending a car and private plane to bring her to his next concert and then hauls her out onstage with no warning to perform one of her songs as a duet. It's sheer fantasy that she would be so performance-ready, but hey, it's a movie. The soulful strength in Ally's vocals makes her a fine match for Jackson, and also makes it conceivable that his fans would respond so enthusiastically to her.

The quick progression into love, cohabitation and marriage is briskly handled, the latter as a spontaneous decision while Jack is coming off a bender at the Memphis home of his old buddy Noodles (Dave Chappelle), a musician content to have traded life on the road for the stability of a loving family. There's freshness in the pared-back narrative shorthand of these scenes, as there is in Ally's navigation of Jack's excesses, on one hand giving him his space while on the other letting him know she won't keep following him down his dark spiral. His issues are worsened by an acrimonious split from his much older half-brother and manager, Bobby (Sam Elliott, bringing his customary weathered integrity), and by the deterioration of a longtime hearing impairment.

Where the movie becomes more pedestrian is in Ally's conquest of superstardom. It's a big disappointment that she trades her authenticity to become, well, an ersatz Lady Gaga. Groomed by aggressive British starmaker Rez (Rafi Gavron), she gets a flashy image makeover with brassy red hair, a hotter wardrobe and a team of backup dancers. Paradoxically, it makes the character less attractive.

The transformation is complete when she lands a guest spot on Saturday Night Live (Alec Baldwin cameos as host), performing a risibly bad piece of processed pop that erases any trace of her individuality. While Jackson accurately describes it as an embarrassment in a heated argument, Ally never shows much resistance beyond going rogue and nixing the dancers in a concert gig. Later, the self-serving Rez becomes more manipulative about minimizing the collateral damage on her career of Jackson's sobriety lapses. But there's a hole in the movie where Rez's comeuppance, or at the very least a confrontation with Ally, should be.

There's a potentially rich subtext here about the constricting ways in which women are packaged for success in the music industry and the narrow reality of what sells in contemporary pop. But the script by Eric Roth, Cooper and Will Fetters declines to explore that path, representing a missed opportunity. Aside from one drunken outburst and inevitable flickers of jealousy as his own gigs become more thankless, Jack is mostly supportive of Ally's career. But he urges her to dig deep into her soul if she wants to have staying power.

The arc that carries the drama through humiliation, atonement, tragedy, heartbreak and a final, very public reaffirmation of Ally's love for Jackson is pretty much indestructible, even if some dawdling in the mid-to-late action softens the emotional impact. It's in the closing scene also that Gaga's skill as an actor isn't at the level of her impeccable vocals. But while this is not going to replace either the 1937 Janet Gaynor-Fredric March original or especially the beloved 1954 Judy Garland-James Mason remake as the classic version, Cooper's fresh take finds plenty of mileage left in the well-trod showbiz saga. There are flavorful enhancements also in scenes with Andrew Dice Clay as Ally's dad, a limo service driver with his own deferred dreams of stardom as a wannabe Sinatra.

Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who brings such a rich look to his work with Darren Aronofsky, shoots in high-gloss or darker textures as required, excelling in particular in the dynamic performance sequences. Production designer Karen Murphy and costumer Erin Benach make vital contributions to defining milieu and character. But the most invaluable element is the music, covering a diverse range of frequently catchy songs, co-written by Cooper and Gaga with artists including Lukas Nelson, Jason Isbell and Mark Ronson. (Nelson and his group Promise of the Real appear as Jack's band.) Cooper does his own singing with the same unshowy confidence he brings to everything else.

Production companies: Jon Peters, Bill Gerber, Joint Effort
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle, Sam Elliott, Anthony Ramos, Rafi Gavron, Michael Harney, Michael D. Roberts, Greg Grunberg
Director: Bradley Cooper
Screenwriters: Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters, based on a story by William A. Wellman, Robert Carson
Producers: Bill Gerber, Jon Peters, Bradley Cooper, Todd Phillips, Lynette Howell Taylor
Executive producers: Ravi Mehta, Basil Iwanyk, Niija Kuykendall, Sue Kroll, Michael Rapino, Heather Parry
Director of photography: Matthew Libatique
Production designer: Karen Murphy
Costume designer: Erin Benach
Editor: Jay Cassidy
Casting: Lindsay Graham, Mary Vernieu
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)

Rated R, 135 minutes