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A Star Is Born
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I could have happily lived the rest of my life without seeing any of the now four versions of A Star Is Born (1937, 1954, 1976, 2018). But on a long flight, I decided on a whim to watch the latest version, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. I like Bradley Cooper as an actor, and this is also his directorial debut. I was also curious about Lady Gaga, whom I had never actually heard. (Can I refer to her as “Gaga” for short?)

Much to my surprise, I loved A Star Is Born, and although I am sure this pun has been used a million times, I was absolutely gaga about the lead actress’s performance. It is not a perfect movie, but it is so captivating and emotionally powerful that quibbling seems like heartlessness and ingratitude.

Bradley Cooper is an amazingly versatile and charismatic actor, and now we can add director and musician to his talents. Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a 40-something rock star whose music seems like country or folk in some scenes, hard rock and grunge in others (in short, wipipo music). I think he is supposed to make us think of Chris Cornell or Curt Cobain.

Maine is a brooding artist type with a drink and drug problem. He is losing his hearing, which adds to his isolation. Cooper voices him with a sort of gruff cowboy/stoner monotone, which is annoying but realistic. He is constantly leaning in to conversations to hear better, or mishearing and misunderstanding people. But with Cooper, it somehow adds to the character’s charm and autistic ingenuousness.

One night, after a concert, Maine is looking for a place to continue drinking and ends up at a drag bar where he sees Ally (Lady Gaga) perform “La vie en rose.” It was a dangerous choice that invites all sorts of invidious comparisons. Aside from a tantalizing bit of “Over the Rainbow” earlier in the film, this was the first time I had heard and seen Lady Gaga. Her French is wobbly, and I feared she would butcher the song with the vulgar mannerisms of Broadway or soul, but the few lines she belts out are actually thrilling.

But the most masterful stroke of her performance is what she doesn’t sing. When she notices Cooper, she freezes for a moment and forgets to sing “Et, dès que je l’apercois” (And when I notice him). Then she completes the line “alors je sens en moi mon coeur qui bat” (I feel inside me my heart beating)—a gesture which pretty much stopped my heart dead. From that moment on, I was in love with this film.

“La vie en rose” is about the rapture and blindness of love, which of course foreshadows what is to come. But Gaga’s performance did not prepare me for what was in store musically. There was a bit of unpleasant belting in a parking lot which made me cringe, but Gaga’s next song, a duet with Cooper called “Shallow,” was truly astonishing. Cooper is really good, but Gaga’s voice is electrifying, combining power with emotional subtlety.

A few comparisons come to mind: Judy Garland, Cher, K. D. Lang, Adele, Dulce Pontes. But really, Lady Gaga is in a class by herself. I am one of those people who literally get chills from powerful music, but Lady Gaga is the only pop singer who has ever had this effect on me. (Needless to say, Lady Gaga could deliver the best James Bond song ever.)

Musically, I thought everything would go downhill after “Shallow,” but only a few scenes later, Gaga topped it with “Always Remember Us This Way,” an utterly heartbreaking distillation of the relationship that forms between Cooper and Gaga’s characters. If this song does not bring a tear to your eye, check your pulse. You’re probably dead.

I was also impressed with Gaga’s performance as an actress. There is not a flat or a false note. Just freshness and authenticity. I suspect that the character of Ally is not too far from Lady Gaga herself. Both Cooper and Gaga brilliantly portray artists because, well, they are artists.

And for all the egotism, insecurity, and drama that surrounds it, the core of all art is still a kind of self-transcendence, the creation of meaning and beauty. The more you share physical goods, the less you have for yourself. But meaning and beauty can be shared with the whole world without reducing one’s own store. Both artists beautifully capture the magic of creation and performance, as well as all the little things that can get in the way.

Maine is fascinated with Ally and wants to get to know her. Naturally, she suspects it is just a pick-up, but sexually Maine is jaded and probably impotent. He is actually more interested in her as an artist and a person. A few scenes later, when their relationship has deepened, they practically race each other to a hotel room (a beautiful touch). But as soon as Maine gets inside, he passes out drunk.

Maine is at the peak of his career, but his hearing loss and addictions already map out his decline. He has everything he wants and feels like sharing. Ally has talent but lacks self-confidence. Maine gives her the encouragement she needs to share her songs with the world, and a star is born. They also fall in love and marry, and the dramatic conflict in the rest of the film springs from the opposite trajectories of their careers.

It is impossible not to like Jackson Maine, and this brings me to my only serious criticism of the script. It is easy for Cooper to play Maine as a really nice guy because he’s written that way. But performers with drug and alcohol problems are generally not nice normal people, with just a little addiction issue off to the side. They often have serious personality disorders. They can be narcissistic, manipulative, borderline, bipolar, etc. They put the people around them through hell. Frankly, though, Cooper could have still made such a character into an irresistibly charismatic hot mess.

But there’s only the slightest hint of that kind of ugliness and jealousy in the film, and frankly it seems at least partially justified, for Maine is rightly disgusted with the music Ally makes when she goes commercial. She sounds like those soulless wind-up autotune divas that I hear everywhere on the radio dial for a few tense seconds as I frantically search for something better. (A horrible thought crosses my mind: Maybe Gaga really is one those autotune divas.)

But what am I complaining about? If Cooper played Maine as a charismatic monster, it might have added realism to the character and challenges to the actor—but it would also have made A Star Is Born into a far less tragic and emotionally powerful film. Let somebody else make that film.

I highly recommend A Star Is Born. I won’t say anything more about the plot. Through some miracle, I didn’t know the end, despite the immense commentary surrounding all four versions, so I approached the movie naïvely and enjoyed it all the more. I don’t want to deny you the same pleasure.

• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Movies 
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  1. Where was the white perspective in this review?

    • Replies: @Anon
    , @Mr. Grey
  2. Anon[360] • Disclaimer says:
    @Brendan Hall

    Where was the white perspective in this review?

    Well, there was a ‘gay’ one.

  3. I can’t believe they actually went and remade A Star is Born yet again. Jollywood must really be running out of ideas. What next? Another remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers?

    • Agree: Alden
    • Replies: @Anon
  4. Gaga actually does have talent, unlike 90% of the female pop singers out there. I’m not a fan of her style, except for her album “Cheek to Cheek” with Tony Bennet. That one was awesome.

    • Replies: @Anon
  5. Anon[199] • Disclaimer says:

    It’s a matter of taste. I watched the two song clips mentioned by Trevor Lynch, and I found them underwhelming, trite, and cliched. Rock turned into Broadway kitsch schlock.

    The first two STAR IS BORN movies worked well because the material is really old-fashioned and sentimental. Sentimentality isn’t what Rock music is about though there have been great sentimental Rock songs. Updating the old-fashioned sentimentality of the first two films for the Rock Era with Streisand and Gaga doesn’t cut it. But a certain sensibility goes for Broadway theatrics: Like what Leonard Bernstein did with WEST SIDE STORY, Rockin’ turned into Schlockin'(though very well). Queen and Elton John could be embarrassing in their overwrought schmaltziness despite their considerable talent. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is great schlock.

    In classic old-fashioned tales, there is the story of Rise and Fall, but the notion of rise/fall works less well in Rock where everything is ‘low’ and ‘crude’. Even at the height of their fame, Rock acts were not about class and respect. Take Janis Joplin. She was crude in the beginning, at the height of her fame, and when she died. In contrast, one could talk of the rise and fall of stars like Judy Garland(in real life).

    Personality-wise, Gaga is like Penny Marshall in LAVERGNE AND SHIRLEY but without the humor. She can sing, but there is nothing distinct about her vocals, no personality, unlike say Stevie Nicks or Pat Benatar.

    • Replies: @Brendan Hall
  6. Anon[199] • Disclaimer says:
    @Fidelios Automata

    Gaga actually does have talent

    For what? She’s just an uglier version of the loathsome Christine Agorilla.

  7. Anonymous [AKA "Yob Lobster"] says:

    I detest remakes. These days they take an all White cast and make it diverse, and add a whole load of f-bombs. Ignore Hollyweird.

    • Replies: @Anon
  8. syonredux says:

    I could have happily lived the rest of my life without seeing any of the now four versions of A Star Is Born (1937, 1954, 1976, 2018).

    The ’54 version is the best.

    • Replies: @Anon
    , @Angharad
    , @paulll
  9. There have actually been five versions of A Star Is Born. The first A Star Is Born was a blatant rip-off of an earlier pre-code movie called “What Price Hollywood?” starring Constance Bennett. Virtually identical plot.

    • Replies: @Brendan Hall
  10. Anon[199] • Disclaimer says: • Website

    Mort Sahl vs John Simon. Hilarious.

  11. Anon[199] • Disclaimer says: • Website

    Right. James Mason was a great actor.

    • Replies: @syonredux
  12. Anon[199] • Disclaimer says: • Website

    Just hope they don’t remake THE ROSE or ONE-TRICK PONY.

    But COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER was splendid biopic. Maybe a madonna bio can be called the Coalburning Daughter.

  13. Anon[199] • Disclaimer says: • Website
    @Digital Samizdat

    I can’t believe they actually went and remade A Star is Born yet again.

    I can believe it. Variations on it are SUNSET BOULEVARD and ALL ABOUT EVE.

    People like sentimental schlock to cynical drama. No wonder they haven’t remade ALL ABOUT EVE, a truly prickly and deflating work.

    People want soap, not acid.

    • Replies: @Alden
  14. Nowadays, there are almost no good movies out there. Sure, if you like super hero’s, I guess, perhaps. But really, just looking for good production values, you find very little. It is almost like the writers strike ( ten years ago? ) was instead the Writers Holocaust. I appreciate any good movie. I thought “Star” was one of them, and I am not a big fan of music. Or remakes. I think you have to judge movies today against their contemporaries. I get tired of just watching stuff from the 80’s ( pre-PC ). It is nice to see new movies, not just reruns. If you watch almost any new movie they would ALL suffer comparing them to thirty or fifty plus years ago. You do have to make allowances. Today you only get a few good movies a year. Let’s enjoy them rather than give a blanket dismissal.

  15. syonredux says:

    Right. James Mason was a great actor.

    Absolutely. And A Star Is Born is one of his best performances, right up there with his work as a mentally unbalanced teacher in Bigger Than Life.

  16. SLM says:

    My wife and I decided to watch this flick last night based on this review. After 10 minutes and about 20 f bombs we turned it off.

  17. Angharad says:

    Far and away. The cinematography is brilliant. The opening sequence, of the Hollywood Variety Charity show, is one of the most astonishing sequences ever. It’s an example of extraordinarily professional, first rate art – but the entire segment is photographed and edited as thought it’s a cinema verite documentary, and comes across as more authentic than a spate of “true life documentaries”. It’s one of my favorite sequences in all of film.

    Judy Garland’s rendtion of “The Man that Got Away” is a genuine masterpiece for the ages. The terrific thing about that rendition is that it’s EVERYTHING that Mason’s Norman Maine character’s assessment sez it is. Her singing is big and bold and brassy – Garland had a vibrato you could drive a truck though – but it’s perfect for the song, I love the sequence because it’s about musicians playing music for themselves. It’s after hours. No paying audience to impress, please, or amuse. You can *feel* the 4:00AM. You can smell the stale smoke. The lingering traces of the kitchen’s food, as the staff completes the previous evening’s clean up. Garland starts the song almost casually. She acts out the despair of the lyrics, but in a playful fashion. She’s having tremendous fun, as she sings this classic torch lament – and the musicians catch her vibe. The song builds and builds and BUILDS to the climax – and it;s EVERYTHING “Maine” says it is. And you see Mason is enjoying every single second. Every single note. They’re all acting – but it’s REAL.

    No other version will ever touch this one. Ever. The End.

    • Replies: @Logan
    , @paulll
  18. OPUS says:

    Saw it with the little woman last week. She loved it. Me, meh, but Gaga could act.

  19. Duke84 says:

    It was a lot better than Green Book.They’ve really beat that theme into the ground.

    • Replies: @Oleaginous Outrager
  20. @Travis LeBlanc

    Constance Bennett, gorgeous and talented. Lady Gaga could play her goofy maid.

  21. @Anon

    Any of the girl singers from the 90s MTV rock videos had better songs and better performances. Lady Gaga would be like Alanis Morrisette, not the one you are going to want to hear in 2019.

  22. Logan says:

    You might enjoy Mark Steyn’s take on this song.

  23. Mr. Grey says:
    @Brendan Hall

    It does look to be written by Hollywood liberals who feel the need to have diversity in their films but aren’t familiar enough with POC to create believable characters, or they are afraid to show POC realistically. Both Gaga and Cooper’s characters have magic negroes that they can confide in and receive wisdom, but other than that the black characters have no agency of their own, other than to make the wypipo laugh and feel better.

  24. @Duke84

    A barbed wire catheter would be better than Green Bleck.

  25. Alden says:

    All about Eve and Sunset Blvd are 2 of my favorite movies.

  26. paulll says:

    Agree. The ’54 version of Star Is Born, though ruined by a vicious studio hatchet job in the editing room, is not only the best version, but one of the all-time great movies. The reason Star Is Born gets remade over and over again is very obvious: it is the archetypal vehicle for a diva. And Judy Garland was the greatest talent Holleywood ever had, the diva of divas. She was one of the great actors, possibly the greatest singer and – without a doubt – the greatest dancer. No one today compares to her, though Gaga is also a powerful triple threat. Garland’s version is a touching study of the way the starmaking machinery can grind up lives, of course. It’s also a tribute to the art that underlies the ‘entertainment industry’, with roots going back to Vaudeville. Beyond the schtick that sells tickets and products there is the art that people live and breathe, that expresses the yearnings of their souls. Maybe you have to sell your soul to be a star, but the art you love can save you.

    Another interesting take on Star Is Born is the movie Glitter, featuring Mariah Carey.

  27. paulll says:

    “The Man That Got Away” is really the heart of Garland’s version of Star Is Born. It’s just some singers and musicians getting together to do their thing, not just doing their art but being their art.

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