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Sunday, October 07, 2018

A Star is Born

The latest take on A Star is Born (this is the fourth time Hollywood has made this movie, since the original in 1937) reminds us of a simple lesson in filmmaking - Sometimes it's not the story being told, but rather the way it's being told.  This movie keeps most of the familiar story beats that has been with the tale since the beginning, as well as taking place in the world of music, just like the 1976 version starring Barbara Streisand.  However, it's been updated enough, and shows that in his directorial debut, that Bradley Cooper can helm a film with a sure and steady hand.

For such a rehashed property, it's amazing how nothing here feels unnecessary.  Cooper not only directs, but also stars, and the chemistry that he shares with his co-star Lady Gaga (who is headlining a film for the first time here) is palpable, and stands for much of the film's success.  There is a dramatic and romantic connection between the two leads that feels absolutely genuine.  While the story is a melodrama at heart, the movie does not go out of its way to place its central lovers in contrived situations.  Instead, it allows us to see these two characters fall in love with each other, and then they have to face each other's personal demons, which is the way it is for every couple.  That's the beauty of the story, and why it is so loved by Hollywood.  It's a simple story with relatable themes, and when done well (as it has been here), it can not only be incredibly moving, but also an automatic crowd pleaser.

Just as before, this is a story of two star-crossed lovers at opposite ends of their respective careers.  Country-rock singer Jackson Maine (Cooper) is on a downward spiral after years of fame.  While he can still fill stadiums, his addiction to alcohol and drugs is starting to take its toll on his mental state, and he is also losing his hearing.  On the opposite end is Ally (Gaga), whom he discovers singing "La Vie en Rose" in a drag bar.  He is immediately taken by her, not just by her talent, but also by her personality and beauty.  They spend the night together, he takes her home the next morning, and neither one can forget the other.  Before long, Jackson is helping to launch Ally's career, and she becomes an Internet sensation after he invites her on stage to sing during his concert.  Soon, her career is booming, and powerful people in the music industry are wanting to sign with her.  Jackson, meanwhile, slips deeper into his addictions, as well as jealousy over how Ally's career is beginning to eclipse his.  And yet, there is always love between them.  Ally knows of his problems, but she loves him and wants to help him.  The question, as it always is with addiction, is does he want help in the first place, or does he simply want to self-destruct?

What makes this particular take on the story succeed is not just the believable romance between the two leads, but also how believably the film handles addiction.  The movie never once over-dramatizes, or uses addiction for a cheap plot gimmick.  We get to see the bleak realities of what it can do to a person, as well as to a relationship, in stark detail.  Addiction has always been a key element to the story of A Star is Born since the first time it was told, but what Cooper does is give a hard-edged look at it.  We never feel like the movie is going to cop out, or look for unrealistic answers, and the screenplay written by Cooper, Eric Roth and Will Fetters never once disappoints us.  This leads to us not only being fully invested in the relationship between Jackson and Ally, but also in the frustration and struggles to hold on when Jackson's life starts to fall apart, and it influences both of them.

But there are two aspects on which this movie can either succeed or fail, and that is the lead performances and the music.  Both are obviously crucial to this story, and both I am glad to say, have been given the best treatment possible.  Cooper expertly uses his movie star charisma to play a man who can still charm, but is obviously falling apart on the inside.  He's likable and heartbreaking, sometimes in the same scene, and he deserves all the attention his performance likely will get.  But, I'm also afraid that he will get outshined by Lady Gaga, who is also excellent, and provides one of the best leading performances given by a recording artist I have seen in a long time.  The shy, awkward nature that she gives her performance during her early scenes immediately draws us to her.  Just like Jackson, we can see a star waiting to come out.  She has a number of great scenes throughout the film, one of which sounds autobiographical, where she talks about her struggles to break into the music industry, and how people loved her songs, but were not fond of her appearance.  She handles every single scene extremely well, and she's bound to get some well-deserved award recognition early next year for this.  As for the music, featuring a combination of classic songs and original ones, it plays a key element in the film, and fortunately it is incredibly strong, both in the selection of songs, and the way Cooper and Gaga perform them.

A Star is Born is certainly familiar, even if you haven't seen the earlier incarnations of it, but when the film contains these performances and this level of emotion, that tends to be the last thing on your mind.  The success of this movie is not just making old material feel fresh, but in the way it takes such a stark and hard look at its own issues.  Yes, Lady Gaga's breakout performance is sure to get most of the attention, but there's a wonderful film here that I hope won't go ignored.

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