A film narrative that has been used in no fewer than four versions must offer something extraordinary to audiences. In the case of A Star is Born it would at first appear to be the title role.
Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland, and Barbra Streisand have elected to play the lead. However, in 2018, the emphasis has shifted so the driving force behind the production is a man – Bradley Cooper, who has turned the film into something of a vanity project. Thus, the film is not so much about a woman singer being discovered and rising to fame, as about the man who discovers her and whose fame goes into eclipse while hers reaches its fullness. It is questionable whether the resulting entertainment is positive.
Doubtless many will not have seen any of the previous versions, so despite the fact the latest release follows a story line very similar to that of previous versions, the film will have some freshness for millions.
As it follows the story of the two leading characters, it still shows a young and talented singer, performing in virtually unknown circumstances, being discovered by a man who provides the catalyst for her career to take off. Thus, the film is a great vehicle for the chanteuse.
The conflict arises from the fact the man is an alcoholic and the combination of his disease and the decline in his own fame is destructive of their professional and romantic relationships.
The whole premise is decidedly unlikely, but under the direction of Cooper, who is not only one of the script writers but also plays the male lead, it is not surprising his part in the proceedings becomes the main concern of the film, rather than that of the female singer.
In the opening sequence it works remarkably well. Jack (Cooper) drunkenly stumbles into a drag bar where Ally (Lady Gaga) is performing and at once recognizes her singing ability as she gives a superb rendition of La Vie en Rose.
For the two of them it is love at first sight, especially when he (who seems to sober up remarkably quickly) discovers she can not only sing but also writes songs
Her problem is she is self-conscious of her appearance (a rather unlikely concern about the size of her nose), but he soon persuades her to get over this and her career is launched – especially because, according to Jack, Ally has something to say through her songs. What that is, other than some platitudinous ideas, is difficult to ascertain if one is to go by the songs that follow.
However, whether or not one can accept the romantic premise upon which all of this is built, it really doesn’t matter. The singing is what it’s all about. In this area, Lady Gaga shows just what a fine vocalist she is. More importantly, she does a great job of establishing her character as an almost saintly, self-effacing, server of others.
At the same time, Cooper, who apparently took two years to prepare for the role, manages to do a competent job as a gravelly voiced country-rock singer struggling to cope with his addiction.
That he is suffering from growing deafness – a real problem for a singer – becomes the focus of much of the rest of the film, which simply gets more and more tedious (especially since the hearing of the audience is also in danger of impairment with theatre speakers turned to maximum volume).
A Star is Born in its latest incarnation remains an adequate take on an old story, though the 1954 Judy Garland version remains for me unequalled and one of the truly great film musicals. It’s worth seeing for Garland’s rendition of The Man That Got Away alone. In retrospect it is apparent she should have won the Oscar for her performance, which she might well have done had the film been released in an uncut version.
However, fans of Lady Gaga will doubtless be as delighted with her performance as past viewers were with Garland’s. It may come as a shock to Lady Gaga followers that she actually appears for most of the film in plain appearance rather than the outrageous wigs and costumes for which she is famous.
Bradley Cooper, meanwhile, tries hard to be winning, charming, and noble, acquitting himself well as a vocalist. It’s unfortunate he has allowed himself to be so self-indulgent, for in the end his character merely becomes tiresome and selfish, reducing the role of his leading lady to an extension of what one learns in the first 10 minutes of her appearance. More of Lady Gaga and less of Cooper would have made for a better film.
When one throws into the mix a liberal use of foul language and several suggestive sexual scenes, one might consider trying to download or borrowing from the library the Judy Garland/James Mason 1954 version. (Avoid the Streisand version at all costs – it’s embarrassingly bad.)