As far as vanity projects go, this latest rendition of A Star is Born is a reasonably accomplished contemporary telling of a story that has been seen on screen three times already. Written, produced and directed by Bradley Cooper, who also cast himself in one of the lead roles, this new version features Lady Gaga as Ally, a talented singer confined to performing in a drag bar until she is discovered by Jackson (Cooper), a hard-drinking redneck country-rocker who has lost his lust for life in the limelight. Gaga follows in the footsteps of Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland in taking on a character who is, effectively, a damsel being ‘rescued’ from the clutches of obscurity by the handsome male saviour with whom she, of course, falls in love. It is stuff straight out of the Disney fairytale playbook which means, I guess, that Keira Knightley’s daughter won’t be watching it anytime soon, although there seems to be plenty of others who still possess a penchant for such sexist stereotypes given that the film has done very good box office and is even being spoken about as a possible awards contender, acclamations which might be overstating the case for the film.
After an impressive opening live concert scene in which Cooper is quite convincing as the singer/musician whose talents and on-stage charisma mask a struggle with addiction, there is no time wasted in bringing the lovebirds together. Having run out of booze, Jack stumbles into a bar in search of a drink (even though seeking out a liquor store would have made more sense) and ‘discovers’ Ally when she belts out a rendition of Edith Piaf’s signature tune La Vie En Rose. Sure enough, they leave the bar together and, within the space of 24 hours (or so it seems) Ally is singing one of her songs on stage alongside Jack in front of thousands of people. Although her acting experience until now has been confined to music videos, a season of American Horror Story on television and small roles for Robert Rodriguez in Machete Kills and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Gaga is a great choice to play Ally because it is the numerous singing and concert sequences in which she absolutely shines.
As Ally’s star rises, it goes without saying that Jack sets forth on a downward spiral, consumed by jealousy and an increasing reliance of booze and pills that culminates in an embarrassing incident at an awards ceremony. The idea that Ally can only find success because of the influence of her famous boyfriend-cum-husband is bad enough, but then she falls under the spell of her newly acquired manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) who completely transforms her image; the music taking a back seat to superficial spectacle. At one point when Ally dispenses with two back-up dancers, she is roundly chastised by Rez for daring to disobey. If this version of the music industry is to be believed, a woman will never find success unless there are men pulling the strings, regardless of how much talent they may possess. Certainly, Cooper stages the musical performances with great authenticity and his performance is perhaps his best so far, although he hadn’t set a particularly high benchmark before now.
It is always great to see Sam Elliott on screen and here he is Jackson’s (much) older brother Bobby, who has served as Jackson’s road manager for a long time. The tensions in their relationship hark back to a childhood spent with a drunken father, the details of which are never explored in any real depth, making it hard to sympathise too much. In fact, Cooper seems intentionally vague with regard to many aspects of the film, such as the fact that we never find out where any of the characters live or where the various concerts are taking place. In addition to the absence of any establishing shots that might enable viewers to identify particular landmarks, Cooper foregoes the use of on-screen text to tell us what city we are in, neither of which is particularly problematic, but you also never get any real sense of exactly how long it takes for the course of events to play out. How long does it take for Ally to transform from unknown bar singer to international pop star? One of the real surprises is seeing Andrew Dice Clay and Dave Chappelle pop up in supporting roles, both playing characters that are a far cry from the acerbic, provocative comedy personas they both possess. There is no denying the quality of the filmmaking here, but it is just a shame that, in the time of #MeToo, a contemporary telling of this story remains so entrenched in misogynistic attitudes and actions. Even the conclusion, which might typically be lauded for its subversion of the happy-ever-after ending, is tarnished by the knowledge that the tragedy which plays out comes as a result of a man unable to reconcile with living in the shadow of a successful woman.