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A Star Is Born

by Glenn Erickson Feb 12, 2019

Last fall’s audience-pleaser is indeed a pleasant surprise, not because it’s a classic but because it isn’t plain awful. An unnecessary third remake of a Depression-era Cinderella story has been concocted to showcase the special talents of Lady Gaga, who indeed comes off as the most personable and deserving star-to-be-born since Judy Garland. Bradley Cooper stunned the industry by wearing almost all the creative hats on this thing — and producing an entertainment that will enhance the careers of all involved.


A Star Is Born
4K Ultra-HD + Blu-ray
Warner Home Video
2019 / Color / 2:41 widescreen / 135 min. / Street Date February 19, 2019 / 44.95
Starring: Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle, Anthony Ramos, Ravi Gavron, Ron Rifkin, Marlon Williams, Brandi Carlile.
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Film Editor: Jay Cassidy
Songs: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Edith Piaf, Jason Isbell, Paul Kennerley, Lukas Nelson
Written by Bradley Cooper, Eric Roth, Will Fetters; based on 1954 screenplay by Moss Hart, the 1976 screenplay by John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion, Frank Pierson, and the story by William Wellman, Robert Carson
Produced by Bradley Cooper, Ravi D. Mehta, Bill Gerber, Jon Peters, Basil Iwanyk
Directed by
Bradley Cooper

 

Quite the sensation from last year, the fourth (or perhaps fifth) version of A Star Is Born is the superstar Lady Gaga’s entree into big screen glory. She easily passes the test. The film itself is the breakout directing-writing-composing-singing-starring vehicle for the busy Bradley Cooper. He is presently Oscar-nominated for producing, writing and performing; Ms. Gaga was likewise nominated, as was Sam Elliott. Eight noms in all is not a bad score; in this generally forgettable year of movies the show has a fairly good chance of taking home some statuettes.

The remake was beautifully positioned by the marketers, as it jumped into public awareness with a minimum of media foreplay. Judging by my contacts it was very well received, especially by people that didn’t know all that much about Lady Gaga. Although I personally think there was no crying need for yet another remake of this particular story, I was generally impressed by what I saw. I’m not equipped to judge Gaga’s singing — she sounds fine to me — but I was taken with her chosen screen personality — she projects a winning homely-human quality that easily shifts into major glamour mode, depending on how she’s made up. Has any singer-actress since Cher demonstrated this kind of image versatility?

 

The leading roles here are definitely for film stars that have already arrived. The even bigger surprise was to discover that Bradley Cooper has musical talent as well (forgive me if this was a known fact for years). Those viewers not expecting much from this new Star Is Born were perhaps more impressed by the movie as a big-screen concert. Gaga’s voice has power (the main requirement for modern arena talent) and Cooper’s has feeling. The vaguely country-rock success mantra professed by Cooper’s drug & booze-soaked star is that sincerity and feeling are everything: a good voice means nothing if one hasn’t got something to say. It’s some kind of inner magic that makes singer A’s sentiments more compelling than those of singer B. Charisma, honesty, genuine-ness is supposed to ooze from a star performer’s pores. Gaga’s newcomer is assured by her agent that the world wants her music, is waiting for it, needs it — it’s her destiny to be up there awash in the cheers and screaming of thousands of ‘those little people out there in the dark.’ Yes, the public still believes in that particular fantasy.

Although nobody under fifty wants to hear it, this story has seen a stack of previous iterations, done with gaps of 1) five years, 2) seventeen years, 3) twenty-two years and finally 4) forty-two years. The first iteration of the basic story was 1932’s What Price Hollywood?   Aspiring waitress Constance Bennett gets her opportunity to act when she meets a big director. He’s the one who becomes an alcoholic, but her romantic story is played opposite another character, a Hollywood playboy.

The very similar A Star Is Born 1937 is from the same producer. It invents the story framework that has stayed constant: the aspiring actress is paired with an established star, whose career collapses as hers skyrockets. The Cinderella aspect is played up in that the actress begins as a hick without connections. The finale is like a Greek tragedy, underlining how Hollywood creates its own gods and destroys them just as easily.

A Star Is Born 1954 adapted the property to allow Judy Garland to make a big comeback, and although she was robbed of an Oscar (by Grace Kelly) the picture is the most accomplished of all five versions. Garland’s aspirant is a singer-actress. She begins not as a nobody but is instead a pro paying dues singing for her supper in and around Hollywood. James Mason’s big star works in Garland’s shadow, but his unrewarded contribution is crucial — a strong player is needed to ground Garland’s big personal confession of a performance.

Barbra Streisand’s 1976 version shifts the story away from movies to rock music; the superstar wished to conquer rock as well as film. Everything about the show bears her heavy hand, starting with the reduction of Kris Kristofferson to George Brent status (you have to be over 50 to grok that). It’s half narcissism and a demonstration of Barbra’s industry clout; perhaps she should have demanded directing credit.

 

All  of that history makes it more of a happy thing to discover that A Star Is Born 2018 is so level-headed. Bradley Cooper can take the bows for keeping the project sane and reasonable; it’s likely that Lady Gaga’s good judgment makes the show watchable as well. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a movie for the fan legions that daydream about becoming rock star demigods, adored and worshipped by zombie hordes.

The story wisely credits the string of writers back to 1937. Unknown singer Ally (Lady Gaga) is so talented that she’s a favored guest performer at a drag club, where all the cross dressers dote on her, and her best friend Ramon (Anthony Ramos) hangs out. So it’s just plain lucky for Ally that the alcoholic, drug abusing rock star Jack (Bradley Cooper) drops in looking for some booze; he falls in love with Ally’s talent, personality and body in just one night. Ally’s no idiot; she initially resists this fairy tale scenario even though both Ramon and her dad Lorenzo (Andrew Dice Clay), a chauffeur who once aspired to sing, scream at her to leap forward. Quitting her waitress job, Ally finds herself hustled on stage to sing alongside an overjoyed Jack, and she’s an overnight sensation. Soon she’s on tour with Jack, offering more of her own songs and getting signed by the slick agent Rez (Ravi Gavron).

While visiting Jack’s old pal Noodles (Dave Chappelle), Ally and Jack are married in an impromptu (but well-arranged) ceremony. Unfortunately, Jack’s substance abuse and his crumbling relationship with his soulful older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott) take their toll — by the time Ally is up for multiple Grammy Awards, Bobby is so wasted that he commits a massive faux pas on stage, a career-killer seen by millions. Always the pragmatic one with her feet on the ground, Ally puts her marriage first and sticks to her man. But Rez tells Jack that he’s history, a millstone around Ally’s neck. He’s keeping the world from hearing her essential music.

 

The show basically works because Lady Gaga feels so natural in the role, and director Cooper underplays everything. The commercial calculation is still present in the choice of what we see: Gaga’s fans get to see their darling in fifteen or so interesting ‘looks.’ In nude lovemaking and bathtub scenes Gaga avoids the silliness that crept into some of Madonna’s (remember Madonna?) stabs at film stardom. The LGBT-friendly opening gives Gaga a comic-relief gay buddy, reviving an irksome trend that I first noticed ages ago in a star vehicle for Jacqueline Bisset. Gaga’s Ally has an odd relationship with the fans. Whereas Barbra Streisand’s Esther Hoffman loves everyone but uses a force field to eliminate any and all fan contact, Ally flows freely with ordinary folk. Yet she aggressively enforces her notion of privacy — she chastises a poor lonely cashier for stealing a photo, and physically attacks a nervy fan that bothers Jack in a bar. Once Ally has gained the cultural super-powers that go with stardom, all goes smoothly — the only folk she need come in contact with are the mellow-est of mellow admirers, and functionaries whose job is to spread roses before her path.

Bradley’s Jack is a Prince when he’s sober but a total screw-up when he’s high. His Achilles Heel seems to be career insecurity: he’s lost most of his hearing and can see the end coming on fast. He’s best when playing with Ally, and thinks it’s funny to try on one of her false eyebrows. I just wish he’d wash his hair more often. Jack is also nice to everybody. When high he simply becomes disoriented, not aggressive. Unlike James Mason and Kris Kristofferson, Jack doesn’t accumulate enemies. The specifics of Jack’s life are equally confected. Instead of a gay friend, he has a soul buddy in his black friend, Noodles. Thus, all PC bases are covered. Jack even has a scene where he fun-wrestles with a lovable dog. Whew! Did Sid and Nancy ever play with a lovable dog? I doubt that anybody proposed a scene where Ally and Jack club baby seals to death.

 

Jack’s lifestyle sticks to country-rock basics. He does seem to spend a lot on private jets and he keeps several nice homes. But he prefers a motorbike and a pickup to a Lamborghini. His well appointed are not outrageous, not Xanadu-grade.

The old versions had villains in a press agent, or business assistant: Lionel Stander, Jack Carson. Sam Elliott’s older brother Bobby is not a villain, but and the Agent Rev bring bad news for Jack and complicate his life. Elliott is 31 years older than Cooper, so it seems a stretch for them to be brothers, but it works well enough. Elliott plays his stock character very well — it’s nice to know that there is a dramatic future for Sam after playing comedy so well in the Coens’ The Big Lebowski. We already know and love Elliott, which is a help. Elsewhere, Andrew Dice Clay makes a surprisingly charming daddy for Ally, and popping up later is a nice bit for actor Ron Rifkin. The show-biz setting is reasonable, and the concert scenes very convincing. Is it fair to assume that Gaga’s big numbers were filmed at her concerts?  Although the cinematography looks rough-hewn in the docu mode, today’s digital effects make it possible to fake all those scenes of the stars singing before the multitudes. (I wince when recalling how Streisand turned paying concert customers into unpaid crowd extras for her version.)

 

Bradley Cooper’s unfussy direction plays it cool and mellow throughout, and reaps the benefit of going for close-up emotions over big dramatic effects. George Cukor’s version attains several classic directorial heights, and Barbra’s show tries for the same in practically every scene, but Cooper openly avoids the stock melodramatic climaxes common to show-biz epics. He skips the story’s traditional big moments, such as ‘I’m Mrs. Norman Maine!'” Jack’s Grammy Night meltdown is the biggest calamity. Ally has just one scene where she loses her temper in a destructive way, and it’s a private moment.

The tragic finale barely needs to be suggested, and Cooper jumps directly to the quiet aftermath. Again, the ‘big emotions’ are poured into the music scenes, which appear to please everyone. The audiences respond to the emotional performances and come out thinking they’ve heard some important songs. It all spells success, with enough dignity to neutralize petty dissent. Any musical that works on any level today needs to be encouraged.


 

Warner Home Video’s 4K Ultra-HD + Blu-ray of A Star Is Born also contains a code for a downloadable encoding. If the IMDB is correct it’s filmed digitally. I was impressed by its warm film texture. On a screen bigger than 65 inches, the 4k Ultra-HD version (with HDR) is essentially no different than a showcase industry screening; it’s all there and looking good. I don’t know which audio format configuration I was shown, but the sound was so rich that even I heard subtleties in the separation of channels. It goes without saying that a disc of such a high profile show is going to be a technical marvel, but I’m also impressed that Song’s operating credo seems to be to set aside fancy bells & whistles. The performance scenes are straightforward, without using frenetic cutting — there’s no need to hype the content.

The disc copy touts songs and performances not seen in theaters. This added musical material is placed in an extras gallery, not the film itself. A making-of featurette is included as well as other music related extras — music videos, etc..

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


A Star Is Born
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good, for Gaga fans Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent (English, Spanish
Supplements: additional music numbers, making-of featurette, music videos
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: Portuguese, Thai, Spanish, English, French (feature only)
Packaging: One Ultra HD and one Blu-ray disc with digital download code in keep case in a card sleeve.
Reviewed: February 9, 2019
(5929star)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.