Producer: Bill Gerber, Jon Peters, Bradley Cooper, Todd Phillips and Lynette Howell Taylor
Director: Bradley Cooper
Writer: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper and Will Fetters
Stars: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Anthony Ramos, Rafi Gavron, Dave Chappelle, Rebecca Field, Michael Harney, Michael D. Roberts, Greg Grunberg, Shangela Laquifa Wadley and William Belli
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Ruminating about the formal simplicity of any song, Bobby Maine (Sam Elliott), toward the close of Bradley Cooper’s new version of “A Star Is Born,” remarks that it’s just a story told again and again. Whether or not the makers intended it as ironic, the remark is certainly true of the movie, which is the fourth version of the tale that itself had a predecessor in “What Price Hollywood?” (1932). The first two, William Wellman’s 1937 film with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, and George Cukor’s 1954 remake with Judy Garland and James Mason, are justifiably regarded as classics, though the latter exists only in a badly mutilated form. On the other hand, Frank Pierson’s 1976 effort with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson is generally regarded as a sad misfire.
Actor Bradley Cooper’s new effort, which he co-wrote with Eric Roth and Will Fetters, directed, co-produced and stars in alongside Lady Gaga, has been receiving glowing notices, and it is certainly better than its immediate predecessor (which really serves as its model). It must defer, however, to the initial two pictures, which remain the gold and silver standard. Despite glowing early reports, this one deserves at best the bronze, and at that of a fairly tarnished sort.
No one is likely to be surprised by the trajectory of the plot, set, as in 1976, in the realm of pop music. Cooper plays Jackson Maine (“Norman” no longer being acceptably cool). Jackson’s an aging, alcoholic country-bred rocker, afflicted with tinnitus, who still boasts a big following in his arena appearances, which are managed—with difficulty—by his devoted brother Bobby (grizzled Elliott, as authoritative as ever). Cooper sings decently enough to be convincing, but his performance overall feels rather like a reboot of Jeff Bridges’ turn as Bad Blake in “Crazy Heart” (or even his Rooster Cogburn, to tell the truth). There are worse models to emulate, perhaps, but it’s still somewhat unnerving.
In any event, after a show he searches for a bar and has his driver stop at a joint that happens to be hosting a drag-queen performance night. A crowd favorite is Ally (Lady Gaga), no drag-queen to be sure: she’s the only female singer who performs—a knock-‘em-dead rendition of “La Vie en Rose” that has Jackson enthralled. Prodded by Ally’s friend Ramon (Anthony Ramos), who works with her on the wait staff of a big restaurant and knows that she’s just broken up with her boyfriend, Jackson stays around after the show—doing a bit of a riff for the singers—and then goes off with Ally on an impromptu date.
The two quickly become an item as Jackson encourages Ally to seek a career in singing-songwriting. Her implausible objection is that experts have told her she’s not attractive enough to make it—this is supposed to be an ugly duckling scenario, you see—but in one of those “yeah, sure” moments that movies like this can’t resist, he invites her to one of his shows and then drags her onstage to do a duet on one of her songs; naturally it sounds as though they’ve been practicing together for years, and she’s an immediate smash. Their relationship takes off too, of course: even her father Lorenzo (Andrew Dice Clay), who fashions himself the Sinatra who never made it and is now a limo driver reminiscing with all his car colleagues, seems pleased.
The title of that first song, incidentally, is “Shallow,” and as in the 1976 “Star,” that seems a prescient term for what follows. As Ally’s fame rises, Jackson’s goes into a tailspin. He has a fight with Bobby that temporarily drives them apart, and his boozing becomes uncontrollable even after a chat with an old pal (Dave Chappelle), eventually forcing him into rehab after he causes a scene at the Grammys. Of course that’s not enough to save him from himself, and Ally, who’s been remade as an instant pop icon by her new hard-driving British manager Rez (Rafi Gavron)—the guy who pretty much banished Jackson from her circle—has her big moment eulogizing him at the end.
The problem with all this isn’t merely that it’s familiar: that’s what remakes are, by definition. The problem is that like the 1976 version, this remake doesn’t offer any pressing reason for its existence. It follows basically the same beats as the earlier films, and while Cooper is okay and Gaga doesn’t disgrace herself (though as an actress, she’s merely adequate), they don’t have a great deal of chemistry between them. The supporting cast is fine, although—with the exception of Elliott, who takers his drawling time—most of them tend to push too hard, perhaps the result of the exuberance of the picture’s first-time director.
Add to that the fact that the original songs here aren’t all that impressive, and, at least in IMAX format, come across deafeningly loud. Another drawback, at least to these eyes, is the cinematography of Matthew Libatique, which is glossy but overuses both extreme close-ups that are brutally oppressive and hand-held camerawork that’s sometimes nausea-inducing; Jay Cassidy’s editing also opts for ramrod-fast cuts. It must be admitted, though, that those elements, along with Karen Murphy’s production design and Erin Benach’s costumes, do make for authentic-feeling mayhem in the big arena scenes.
Perhaps this is one of those songs that’s been sung once or twice too often.