A Star is Born
Directed by Bradley Cooper
I fully expected to watch “A Star is Born” and then feel compelled to compare and contrast it to the multiple previous iterations of the same, basic story. But this new film both succeeds and fails on its own merits and it didn’t push me into retrospective mode.
In this latest re-telling of the story of an established male star who takes an unknown female singer under his wing, Bradley Cooper plays Jack, the filler of stadium-sized concerts, against Lady Gaga as a young waitress who sings in the evenings at a local gay bar. Cooper also directed, co-wrote, and co-produced the film. And while most would, presumably, have expected Lady Gaga to at least sing and possibly write her own songs for the movie, many might be surprised to find Cooper also singing and co-writing his own material.
The film is at its best when one or both of the two stars are either singing or watching the other sing. The acting, the singing, and the original songs that hit with a sense of familiarity that makes them feel like songs you’ve heard before, are all top notch. And there’s wonderful chemistry of mutual admiration as they stare into each other’s eyes. But it’s not quite such wonderful chemistry of love – or at least it doesn’t quite come across that way.
Jack initially stumbles upon Ally at the bar, on one of his routine post-show benders, and one doesn’t have to have seen the earlier films to know there’s trouble (Bad Romance?) ahead when one of the two is such a raging drunk. That he’s managed to keep things up this far is thanks, in part, to his significantly older brother and father figure Bobby, played in a delightfully matched performance by Sam Elliott – a man Bradley Cooper and half the audience probably hope to grow up to be. And the film works exceptionally well as Jack and Ally get to know each other, and Ally comes to realize that Jack’s interest isn’t purely casual.
The problems begin after that, and it’s almost all in the pacing or more precisely the lack of any real indication of the pacing of the events behind the action. There’s no real sense of the passage of time, in terms of just how much time has passed between moments. So suddenly we’ve left behind intimate and profound moments that feel almost like we’re experiencing them in real time, at the start of the film, to relationship and career jumps that feel like somebody keeps pressing the fast forward button without us noticing.
On the one hand, the relationship feels like it’s burning too bright to be sustainable while on the other hand, things are happening that must have taken significant time to occur. And without that accurate sense of time passing, it’s hard to get a real sense of the relationship, and without that it’s equally hard to care about it. It begins to feel like a highlight reel, or a video album.
Along the way, many of the moments remain genuine and heartfelt, helped by strong, understated supporting performances by Dave Chappelle and Andrew Dice Clay. But there are interludes where you can’t tell if a week, month, or year has gone by and that undermines the emotional investment.
By end, I wanted to sit through the credits to see who had written or co-written which songs, and I would gladly have bought expensive tickets to a Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper after-concert. But I had stopped feeling much for either character less than half way through the film, and not because of sub-par performances in any particular scene. This is a film that has elements in it that could reasonably routinely have me bawling my eyes out, but those moments are allowed to pass by with so little attention that it ends up feeling a little sterile.
Also, just as there are films in which a supposedly plain girl or young woman suddenly shines, when she lets her hair down or takes her glasses off, but is played by an actress already known for her looks, all four of the major films of this title over eight decades have given us an unknown character played by an already established star. The onscreen dynamic and emotion might benefit from casting a relatively unknown actor (regardless of the respective genders of the characters) in the part of the relatively unknown singer and let that sense of wonder and opportunity play out in parallel in front of our eyes.
There’s plenty of pleasant surprise onscreen here that Bradley Cooper can sing and that Lady Gaga can act, and this is a film that could deservedly win awards for acting and songwriting, but there’s more residual sense of wonder and amazement in some of the talent show videos that show up in Facebook feeds than there is here. I’d rather actually watch A Star is Born than A Star is Born Again.