Still singing: Remake hits all the right notes
By: Matt Brunson
Based on the timeline carefully laid out by Hollywood, it appears that every generation needs a version of A Star Is Born to call its own.
Excluding 1932’s What Price Hollywood? (which included some thematic DNA that would be carried over), the first version to appear was the 1937 Best Picture Oscar nominee A Star Is Born, starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in the only interpretation that’s a straight drama bereft of ample musical numbers. Next came the best version — the 1954 gem starring Judy Garland and James Mason — and this was followed by the weakest version — the 1976 hit starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Conspicuously missing is a 1990s edition to keep the gaps closed, but that decade saw Whitney Houston in 1992’s The Bodyguard, so I guess that’s close enough (and Houston was being considered around that time to headline her own take on A Star Is Born, but the project fell through).
All of which brings us to the 2018 version of A Star Is Born (three and a half stars out of four), a splendid remake which ably demonstrates that good stories never die, they just patiently rest as filmmakers figure out how to bring back their sparkle. In this case, it’s Bradley Cooper who deserves most of the credit. In addition to essaying one of the two leading roles, he also directed and co-produced the picture, co-penned the screenplay, and co-wrote a handful of the original songs. If he was also responsible for the catering services, that’s not reflected in the end credits — still, his involvement in that capacity wouldn’t surprise me, given his total dedication to this project. Yet his greatest achievement arguably turns out to be his generous support of Lady Gaga, a revelation in her first significant movie role (no, I don’t count Machete Kills).
Despite some contemporary updates to reflect the times — I can assure you that the Gaynor and March characters back in ’37 didn’t first meet during a drag performance at a gay bar — the primary framework remains the same. Jackson Maine (Cooper) is an established music star whose career trajectory might be on the descent, particularly when his alcoholic tendencies are added to the equation. Meanwhile, Ally (Gaga) toils in a restaurant, writes songs she figures no one will ever see, and has the honor of being the only woman allowed to perform at the aforementioned drag show. It’s during her rendition of “La Vie en Rose” that Jackson, stopping off for yet another drink or five, first becomes aware of her presence — and her talent. He ends up taking her under his wing, leading to a relationship that flourishes on both the professional and personal levels. But there’s always the booze hovering around the edges of his life, a complication that concerns not only Ally but also Jackson’s brother and manager Bobby (Sam Elliott) and Ally’s producer Rez (Rafi Gavron).
Any worries that Lady Gaga might have turned out to be another Madonna (great pop star, wretched actress) are dispelled almost immediately, with the superstar delivering a performance that’s instinctively warm and natural. Cooper is also terrific — when he first appears, he sounds exactly like Sam Elliott, which proves to be apropos since they’re portraying siblings. And speaking of Elliott, he’s sensational here. Providing the movie with most of its heart (yes, I had to wipe away tears at the end of the scene in which Bobby drops off Jackson after they have a “moment”), he’s more than deserving of what would be his first career Oscar nomination. Look also for stellar support from Hamilton player Anthony Ramos as Ally’s pre-stardom friend, Dave Chapelle as Jackson’s lifelong friend, and especially Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s loving dad (an insufferable comedian in the 1980s and ‘90s, Clay has transformed himself into a vibrant character actor via both this and Blue Jasmine).
The only major misstep in this richly detailed and properly paced movie (at 135 minutes, it’s still shorter than the other two musical versions) occurs toward the end when the ostensible villain of the piece takes center stage in a heavy-handed sequence that feels at odds with the overall flow. In all other respects, though, A Star Is Born is stellar entertainment, taking an old story and miraculously making it sing anew.