Having previously been one of Hollywood’s enduring tales of the fading and rising star becoming lovers, A Star is Born has returned to cinemas for its 4th iteration.
Previous versions of the film date back to 1937, 1954 and 1976, and like the latter two, this version takes a musical path.
Indeed, this 2018 version is a continuation of a project that had been on the cards for a while, with Clint Eastwood and Beyoncé initially linked, along with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale, Johnny Depp and Will Smith.
The version that did surface has Bradley Cooper in the role as the older rock star, with Cooper also directing for the first time. Lady Gaga, meanwhile, stars opposite as the undiscovered talent catapulted to mega-stardom.
It would be easy to be prepared to be cynical about Hollywood rehashing another idea, and one about entertainment, no less, but what does surface is a film determined to sweep such notions away, and quickly.
The film begins with scenes shot on location at California’s Coachella Festival – other festivals on the same site and even the Glastonbury Pyramid stage make an appearance. It makes for an impressively intense filming of a live band doing their thing, starting with Cooper’s aged country-rock star character Jackson performing a heavy bluesy confessional.
Addled with drink, drug and hearing loss problems, Jackson is clearly an artist struggling to enjoy himself. In search a post-gig drink, he ends up in a drag bar and is charmed by Gaga’s first time performer and former bar waitress Ally, who sings a near-acapella take on La Vie en Rose.
A drunk night out sees the two of them bond over a love of music, and before long, the charmed Jackson eventually persuades Ally to join him on tour. Initially, Ally joins as a star-struck member of the touring party happy to be out of the monotony of her job and near the music scene after being rejected by labels.
But after being hauled on stage as part of his band, Gaga excels as part of a performance of her own song Shallow, which has become one of the film’s breakout hits away from the screen. This performance in front of a screaming crowd of thousands soon leads to her becoming part of Jackson’s band, and in time, his lover.
This is in spite of the complexities around Jackson, who is still struggling with drink, and who loses the stabilising influence of his brother & manager Bobby (Sam Elliott) after an argument over the sale of family land in Arizona.
Impressed by her singing, a record label executive (Rafi Gavron) sees superstar potential, and ropes her in to becoming a new electronic pop star. Jackson responds seemingly in two ways, both with support of marriage, and the sneer of not enjoying the new style.
The majority of the film features at least one of its two leads, and both provide something new to their game. For Cooper, there’s proof of an impressively adept skill at directing, with a film that plays the narrative extremely well. In particular, the performance aspects are electric, combining a superbly written genre-straddling score and kinetic live performances.
While Cooper does well enough as the wizened old blues-rocker by itself, his portrayal of beaten down addiction and dependency is particularly well done. It also acts well as a counterpoint to Gaga’s more hopeful turn in her film debut.
The singer impresses early on in what could pass for a dramatic version of her own rise from struggling to get a foot in the door to chart-topping arena pop in no time. Her role is played in an intriguingly complex part, trying to keep it together in the face of the rise to fame, a husband seemingly never far from self-destruction, and an overbearing father Lorenzo (Andrew Dice Clay).
The duo’s interaction is attractively layered, and is very well expressed through the medium of the score, which effectively documents their story very well.
If there is a criticism, its that the ending feels rushed. A Star is Born has a reputation of ending a certain manner, and this film is one that follows in its tradition. But while the scene is emotionally played well enough, there is a moment that feels rushed and distorts the circumstances that might lead to the ending happening in a manner that feels like its been sped up, as well as also taking the option of reducing someone who was merely a broad strokes background character beforehand into something of a full villain without really fleshing him out.
In saying that, it leads into the beautifully worked showstopper I’ll Never Love Again, which was shot on a day of tragic circumstances for Gaga off camera and is a formidable finale powered along by a beautiful vocal for Gaga.
In any case, A Star is Born is a film that works extremely well enough on its own terms. With two mighty fine lead performances, a powerhouse collection of custom songs, a well-played handling of its characters, impressively kinetic filming of live performances, and all the rest, its certainly worth the hype.