Dir: Bradley Cooper; Starring: Sam Elliott, Greg Grunberg, Lady Gaga. Cert 15, 135 mins
Pop diva Lady Gaga gives a perfectly creditable performance opposite Bradley Cooper (who also directs) in the latest version of old Hollywood chestnut, A Star Is Born – but this still feels like an unnecessary remake.
It doesn’t add anything we haven’t already seen in the Janet Gaynor (1937), Judy Garland (1954) or Barbra Streisand (1976) versions. Worse, Cooper fails to harness Lady Gaga’s greatest quality as a performer, namely her flamboyance and outrageousness. Her character here is disappointingly conventional and even a little bland: a would-be singer in a dead-end job who keeps a picture of Carole King on her wall.
Ally (Gaga’s character) has a big nose and is very self-conscious about it. (“Almost every single person has told me they like the way I sound but they don’t like the way I look,” she laments early on. Her down-to-earth, Frank Sinatra-loving father (Andrew Dice Clay in Sopranos mode) is her biggest champion but nobody else, other than her work colleague Ramon (Anthony Ramos), sees anything in her.
Then comes the evening when drunken country rock star Jackson Maine (Cooper) hears her perform “La Vie In Rose” in a drag bar. He is immediately smitten. Musically, this is Gaga’s high spot in the movie – the one song that allows her to move into the realm of high camp and to show a stage presence matching that of an Edith Piaf or a Marlene Dietrich.
Jackson takes pills backstage before concerts and consumes huge amounts of booze. Cooper plays him in a way which can’t help but rekindle memories of Kris Kristofferson (the male lead in the Streisand film.) He is charismatic but slowly falling to pieces.
His gruff-voiced minder and brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott), dutifully catches him when he falls, patches him up, cleans after him and makes sure he fulfils his contractual engagements.
Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Jackson is on the sentimental side. The singer may be a self-destructive alcoholic who sometimes falls asleep in a drunken stupor but he always remembers to ask his limo driver how his family is getting on. Beneath the barnacles, he’s a decent, kindhearted man. He sees Ally’s talent (“Can I tell you a secret, I think you might be a songwriter”) and sets out to nurture it.
He invites her on stage, takes her on tour with him and they fall in love. He has advice for her on how to sustain a career. “If you don’t dig into your fucking soul, you won’t have legs.” His problem, though, is that he has dug too far into his soul and has destroyed himself in the process.
You don’t have to be an astrologer to predict that one star here will rise as the other falls. Ally may start from humble beginnings but she has the drive and the ambition. Jackson, meanwhile, is haunted by his very troubled childhood and his painful memories of his abusive father.
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As a director, Cooper goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure authenticity. He looks and sounds like a fading country rock star from the 1960s or 1970s, belting out songs written by Lukas Nelson (Willy Nelson’s son) at huge concerts. The sound-editing is exemplary.
The filmmakers catch the rawness and excitement of the live shows as well as the toll they take on Jackson. His hearing is going. There is a very realistic seeming recreation of an awards show at which Jackson disgraces himself, and an excruciating scene at a Roy Orbison tribute event at which he can’t play in tune. It is perverse, though, to set the film in the world of country rock.
It would surely have made much more sense to have tried to make this version of A Star Is Born more urban and more contemporary – and to have given Lady Gaga the chance to dress up and provoke us a bit more. Nor do the filmmakers come up with a moment to match the one in the Judy Garland version when a despairing James Mason walked out to sea and disappeared into the waves.
This isn’t just a film about celebrity, ambition and destruction. It is also a love story. Cooper and Lady Gaga bring an impressive intimacy and tenderness to their scenes together. We know that at least one of them is heading fast toward the reefs. The supporting characters, notably the ruthless promoter and producer Rez (Raf Gavron), are drawn in superficial fashion.
If you’re looking for an original and surprising variation on A Star Is Born, you’d be better advised to turn to Michel Hazanavicius’ silent film The Artist (2011) than to this downbeat and surprisingly lugubrious version. Cooper and his team simply aren’t able to reinvigorate material that has been pored over so many times before by other filmmakers.
The star wattage of Cooper and Lady Gaga and their soulful, heartfelt performances aren’t enough to light up a movie that, for all its qualities, is bound to earn unfavourable comparison with its predecessors.
A Star is Born is out in UK cinemas now
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