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A Star Is Born (2018)

Let’s get this out of the way right now: We’re talking about the fourth iteration of a story that dates back to the 1930s. I’m not going to hold back on spoilers for this one. You’ve been warned.

There’s a reason why movies from the 1920s and 1930s don’t typically get remade. Yes, The Jazz Singer has gotten remade twice (three times, including the 1959 TV remake) and the resounding failure of every attempt makes this story the exception that proves the rule. The original was a product of a time when the talking picture was still in its infancy and cinema itself was only a couple of decades old. Artists were still learning how to write, shoot, act, edit, and craft this new medium, with results that were appropriately rough. It was miracle enough to see moving pictures on a screen before so many years of trial and error informed us of what made a movie good.

Of course, that isn’t getting started on workplace safety laws, union rules, political correctness, and all the other cultural changes we’ve seen in the past hundred years.

Granted, there are a few immortal classics from that era (The Wizard of OzStagecoach, pretty much anything Charlie Chaplin made, etc.), all of which we’ve collectively agreed should never ever be remade today. And those were the best of the best, the ones with stories and effects that miraculously transcended the rock-bottom standards of their day. There are hundreds, possibly thousands of movies from that era locked away in vaults or lost to history because we’ve outgrown them. These were early experiments made before anyone knew what cinema would someday become, back when novelty was the prime attraction and the storytelling was an afterthought.

And yet we keep coming back to A Star Is Born every couple of decades.

I can see why it’s tempting, on the surface. On one hand, it’s an uplifting and inspirational story about a young woman (this latest iteration is named Ally, played by Lady Gaga) who comes up from nothing to be a worldwide superstar. On the other hand, it’s a tragic and heartbreaking story about an older man (here named Jackson “Jack” Maine and played by debut director/co-writer/co-producer Bradley Cooper) at the peak of his fame, just before he comes crashing down in an alcoholic haze of pride and jealousy. And in between the two is a love story that ends in heartbreak as the male lead sacrifices himself so the female lead can keep reaching greater heights.

It’s easy to understand why Judy Garland, Barbara Streisand, and Lady Gaga all saw the appeal in remaking the 1937 original. Ditto for James Mason, Kris Kristofferson, and Bradley Cooper. Why wouldn’t an actor turn down such a meaty character, especially when it comes with a chance to show off some musical chops in the bargain? Plus, it’s a story that celebrates showbiz, and you know the Academy eats that shit up.

Right off the bat, I can tell you that the casting in this latest remake is pitch-perfect from top to bottom. There is not a single dud in the cast. Andrew Dice Clay turns in a deeply multilayered performance as Ally’s father, a washed-up wannabe crooner who looks to all the world like an opportunistic knucklehead until the chips are down. Dave Chappelle comes in out of nowhere and he’s only in the film for one scene, yet somehow, he still elevates the whole film without feeling the least bit out of place. Anthony Ramos plays the best friend to Ally’s character, turning in a charming performance as a throwaway character, but without upstaging the leads or wearing out his welcome. Even the goddamn record executive is played by Rafi Gavron, who perfectly strikes more balances with this totally thankless role than I could possibly list here.

But the MVP of the supporting cast is the incomparable Sam Elliott, here playing the elder half-brother to Cooper’s character.

(Side note: The two brothers are named Jack and Bobby. I can’t believe I only just got that right now.)

So far as I can tell, Bobby is a character original to this latest remake, and his addition pays all sorts of dividends. For one thing, it’s a useful device to convey and explore the new tragic childhood backstory of our male lead. Jack’s mother died giving birth to him and his father was a raving drunk who died at 13, so Bobby has been stuck raising his little brother for the past three decades or so. As such, Jack has never really taken orders from anyone but Bobby, and only barely at that. Perhaps most importantly, Bobby serves to illustrate how Jack is poison to everyone around him, and Bobby seems to have a considerably easier time without Jack to look after. It very nicely serves to foreshadow Jack’s ultimate decision and the reasoning behind it.

Which brings us to our male lead. Cooper goes through pretty much the entire movie with a noticeably deeper drawl, like he was trying to put a bit of Elliott’s influence into his performance. That was a neat touch. Otherwise… well, as I’ve said before, there’s a lot of tragic/romantic/dramatic meat on that bone, and Cooper makes a meal of it. He does a phenomenal job of immersing himself into the joys and pains of this character. Likewise, Lady Gaga is a powerhouse in this film, bolstering her performance with a nice bit of fiery Italian temper. The both of them have sizzling chemistry from start to finish, and their musical numbers sound phenomenal.

Speaking of which, most of the music was recorded live on set (reportedly at Lady Gaga’s insistence) and it makes a huge difference. It gives the sound design a particular “feel”, for lack of a better term, that suited the action in a beautifully authentic manner. I don’t know how else to describe it except that the concert scenes perfectly sound and feel like loud and massive concert performances. The recording booth scenes have a clean and sterile feeling, like we’re there in the recording booth.

The sound design is beautifully done throughout. I especially loved Jack’s childhood tinnitus, here used as yet another symbol for something that Jack is losing over time and can never get back. More importantly with regard to the sound design, the tinnitus causes white noise at times, serving as a neat audio-visual cue to go with Jack’s less controlled moments. I was also very fond of the camerawork and the editing, though the use of red lighting near the end was rather melodramatic.

But even with all of that said, this movie has more than its fair share of problems. Most of them because the filmmakers were adapting a story from a time when story was an afterthought at best. Perhaps more importantly, it comes from a time before feminism was really a thing and female leads were typically little more than eye candy.

I understand that the Refusal of the Call is a time-honored device in storytelling, but that really needs to be a one-time-only deal. If a protagonist (especially a female protagonist) says no to something, only to be repeatedly worn down by her supporting characters (especially male supporting characters), it looks like the protagonist has no agency in the plot, and her actions are driven more by external pressure than her own internal motivation.

Repeatedly throughout the movie (as in all other iterations, from my understanding), we never see Ally work or suffer for her career. She doesn’t really earn any of her victories. Simply because she’s effortlessly pretty, naturally talented, and lucky enough to randomly meet and fall in love with an established star, everything she could ever need is handed to her with no strings attached, whether she wants it or not.

Hell, even when Jack proposes to her, he literally puts the ring on her finger without even asking. And while she’s dithering about this massive life decision, she’s surrounded by supporting characters who are making plans and getting Ally out the door so she can literally be married that exact same day. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t get the chance to say yes or no or even much of anything until she says “I do” at the altar.

But easily the most prominent example is right there in the trailer, when Jack coaxes Ally onto the stage against her vocal insistence to the contrary. What the trailer doesn’t show you is that Jack is going to perform a song that Ally wrote, regardless of whether she’s on the stage, with or without her consent. So he’s brazenly stealing a song written by someone else, with zero regard to Ally’s rights as the actual songwriter. And he’s also forcing her onto the stage with no makeup, no costuming, no sound check, and no warmup, for thousands of people who paid however many hundreds of dollars for a ticket.

As a reminder, Jack is supposed to be a professional musician. In a band of professional musicians. Surrounded by an army of technicians, roadies, stage managers, publicists, and so many other industry professionals. And every single last one of them should have known that this was totally wrong for any number of reasons.

This is simply how Jack is, especially in the first half of the film. He pulls all this shit because he’s a handsome country music star who gets whatever he wants, and his constant drunkenness gives him no regard for manners or social graces. Put it together and Jack is a total asshole who does whatever he wants no matter how many people tell him not to. And for the most part, nobody ever calls him on his shit and he gets away with zero consequences. But again, this is most likely a holdover from the old-time sexism baked into the premise of the story.

To be fair, the filmmakers do make some attempts at modernizing the story. The initial meet-cute happens at a drag bar, which certainly wouldn’t have happened in any of the previous iterations. (Though maybe the 1976 version could’ve gotten away with that, I dunno.) Jack’s character actually goes to rehab in this one, a development unique to the remake that’s well in keeping with most modern celebrity breakdowns. And while there’s a bit of social media activity in the periphery, there’s nothing so pointed that would instantly date the movie.

That said, the filmmakers definitely could have gone further in tailoring the story to a modern setting. Jack still upstages Ally at an awards show, but I’m disappointed he stopped just short of going full-on Kanye. Also, it’s not like we have any shortage of musicians dying prematurely of suicide and/or drug abuse. (Avicii and Mac Miller are only two examples from this year alone, may they both rest in peace.) I kept expecting the movie to make that connection, but when Jack finally died, I was left sadly underwhelmed.

Another massive disappointment came with what might have been. Beyonce was originally set to be the female lead of this picture, and Portland’s own Esperanza Spalding was in talks when Beyonce dropped out. I’m not saying that either one of them would have done a better job than Lady Gaga, but making this into an interracial romance — or hell, even a same-sex romance — might have been a neat way to update the story. Maybe in another couple of decades, when the film inevitably gets remade again.

Then we have the music. For all my praise about the recording and the sound design, the songs themselves were just kinda “meh”. I’m sorry, I know “Shallow” has been getting a ton of buzz lately, but it only sounds to me like scraps from Adele’s garbage, and Lady Gaga is so much better than that.

But what really sinks the soundtrack is the bullshit “high art”/”low art” dichotomy, in which modern Rock Country is presented as soulful and meaningful while Pop is nothing more than cheap and brainless fluff. Not only is it stupid, simplistic, and pathetically cliched (La La Land did pretty much the exact same thing just last year, for fuck’s sake) but Ally’s heel-turn from one to the other is so extreme and abrupt that it makes no lick of sense.

Oh, and for the cherry on top: Ally closes out the movie with a song about how she’ll never love anyone else. She’s sworn her heart and soul to Jack for all eternity with the promise that she would never remarry and they would stay together even after death. Even after Jack committed suicide specifically so that Ally could go to bigger and better places without him, so she could be happier and more successful in the long run. FUCK. THAT. SHIT. Seriously, filmmakers, way to go for cheapening the sacrifice that the whole damn movie was built around.

A Star is Born (2018) is the product of many wonderfully talented people putting every possible ounce of effort into making a quality film, and I respect that. Indeed, there is simply too much talent and effort here to result in anything outright awful, and the performances are marvelous if nothing else. The problem is that the filmmakers are trying to make a legitimately serious Oscar contender out of a 1930s story that was never built to support this kind of weight. Hell, this kind of weight didn’t even exist for a movie back when the Oscars were only ten years old!

The overall movie works better as a proof of concept than anything else. Bradley Cooper shows solid directing chops while Lady Gaga proves herself a remarkable actor, and if they both get more gigs as a direct result of this, I won’t complain. In the meantime, I expect that this movie will have a similar fate to the previous three iterations: It’ll get a few Oscar nominations — maybe even a couple of wins — and then go right back into pop culture obscurity until the next remake in 2040.

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