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This Star Still Burns Bright

Bradley Cooper
Bradley Cooper
Warner Brothers
 136 Minutes
Directed by: Bradley Cooper
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga   
A Star Is Born

In perhaps the second most memorable quote in director Bradley Cooper’s remake of the venerable screen melodrama, A Star Is Born, Sam Elliott describes music as 12 notes between octaves then repeated. He then adds: “It's the same story told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer this world is how they see those 12 notes.” The same can be said about remaking movies, and, sadly, most directors offer the world little but a technologically enhanced version of the original. But in Cooper’s case, his version of A Star Is Born is both timeless and quite timely.


A Star Is Born has been made into a movie three times previously, most notably with Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954 and most recently with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976. Each time, the story is essentially the same. A famous male actor or singer meets a talented female nobody, and, with his help, she becomes a star while, with the help of alcohol and drugs, his career crumbles. I must confess that, when I first heard about this latest remake (initially to be directed by Clint Eastwood), I thought it would be nothing more than a rehash of the Streisand version, a showcase for a hot singer’s talents. Fortunately, Cooper and Lady Gaga, who play the leads, proved me very wrong.


In this latest version, Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a famous country rock singer who is already deep into the bottle as the film begins. A chance stop for a nightcap after a concert lands him in a drag bar where wannabe singer Ally (Lady Gaga), a former waitress at the club, is performing that night. Jackson is charmed, first by her talent and then by her sincere passion about her music, a passion that is hobbled by self-doubts about whether she has what it takes to succeed in show business.


The next day, Jackson flies off to his next concert but leaves his driver behind to invite Ally to join him. At first, she refuses, but after being insulted for the umpteenth time by her current boss, she and co-worker Ramon (Anthony Ramos) go off in Jackson’s private jet to the concert. There, she discovers that he has made a new arrangement of a song she had written, and she reluctantly accepts his request to go on stage to sing a duet with him.


Needless to say, the song is a hit, and Ally winds up going on tour with Jackson and soon into his bed as well. Ally later attracts the attention of a major record producer, Rez (Rafi Gavron), who starts turning her into a more traditional pop star. Jackson is not too happy about the direction in which her career is going, and his drinking begins to spiral out of control. Eventually, the two marry, but Jackson’s frequent intoxication soon makes him nearly unbookable. Finally, he hits rock bottom when he shows up sloshed at the Grammy Awards, where Ally wins the Best New Artist while he makes a drunken fool out of himself.


While the storyline of the current version of A Star Is Born is very similar to that of the earlier versions (and reasonably easy to predict even for viewers who haven’t seen any of the other films), Cooper’s movie differs from the others in one major way. Both the Garland and Streisand films focused on the woman on her way to the top, not surprising, considering that both of those actresses were heavily involved in the production of their movies. Here, Bradley Cooper directed, co-produced, and co-wrote the movie and keeps as much of the focus on his character as on Ally’s.


That focus turns his Jackson Maine into a Shakespearean tragic hero. Unlike James Mason and Kris Kristofferson, whose anger was a result of frustration at their declining careers, Jackson displays little outrage during the movie except for one fight he has with his older brother and manager Bobby (Elliott). Bobby realizes that Jackson’s alcohol problems stem from a father who groomed the younger brother as a drinking companion, a truth Jackson can’t bring himself to admit. Jackson is also upset about Ally’s career, not because it is successful, but because he feels she is selling out her art to become a shallow, flavor-of-the-month pop artist.


Music as art is a significant theme in Cooper’s A Star Is Born, as Jackson recognizes Ally not only for her singing voice but also for the authentic message she conveys when she pours her heart into her early compositions. Cooper demonstrates this perfectly in the movie’s numerous, brilliantly realized musical numbers. These aren’t just songs to fill out a soundtrack album or showcase Lady Gaga’s voice but, instead, a form of expression. Lady Gaga acts through her singing, powerfully when she believes in the music, and more indifferently when she’s singing Rez’s assembly-line numbers. It’s no surprise that the most dramatically inert part of the movie occurs when she is performing Rez’s songs.


Lady Gaga proves to be a revelation here. Devoid of her usual theatrical makeup and attire, she shows passion, power, and, in the end, tremendous sadness. Still, Cooper, who has the meatier role, manages to outdo her. He sings his own numbers (both he and Lady Gaga performed their songs live) and acquits himself well, but he bares his emotions when he abandons his amiable façade and shows the real pain underneath. Also, when he calls to Lady Gaga to get her to turn around and then drawls, “Just wanted to take another look at you,” it’s a perfect delivery of a perfect line. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him pick up an Oscar (both he and Lady Gaga are virtually assured of nominations, and Sam Elliott has a good chance to garner one as well).


While the new A Star Is Born has no single moment to match Judy Garland’s performance of “The Man That Got Away,” overall, it is a superior film in nearly every regard (and far better than the Streisand version). The script has real depth to it, the supporting performances are solid, and Cooper even manages to capture the electricity of the live concert performances. A Star Is Born is also unmistakably the product of a social media era in which stardom can be instantaneous thanks to a fortuitous viral video, but, as the film demonstrates, true art is far more difficult to achieve. This movie is true art.  

In this clip, Bradley Cooper flirts with Lady Gaga.

Read other reviews of A Star Is Born: 

A Star Is Born (2018) on IMDb