Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
It’s easy to lament Hollywood’s love of reboots, remakes, and sequels as a sign of modern-day creative stagnation, but the truth is that the entertainment industry has always loved retelling the same stories. Whether filmmakers are recycling familiar genre archetypes or giving an old classic a modern update, revivals have been a movie staple since the beginning of the industry — and sometimes, those remakes can become classics in their own right. (Just ask fans of John Carpenter’s The Thing or David Cronenberg’s The Fly.)
But even given that long history, few movies stand out for the sheer number of remakes like A Star is Born. A story about an aspiring young female entertainer who falls in love with a male star whose career is on the decline, the film has been remade four times, with Janet Gaynor (1937), Judy Garland (1954), Barbra Streisand (1976), and now Lady Gaga in Bradley Cooper’s directing debut.
It’s valid to ask whether a movie needs to be made a fourth time, but Cooper’s fantastic, emotional film demonstrates how execution, style, and a modern point of view can make even the most familiar story fresh again. A Star is Born isn’t just proof that Lady Gaga is a wickedly talented movie star (though it does prove that) or that Cooper is a tremendously talented writer and director (it proves that, too). It’s a reminder that some stories are truly timeless and allow us to examine aspects of the human condition no matter what decade they’re made in.
What’s the genre?
It’s a love story. It’s a rags-to-riches wish-fulfillment fantasy. It’s a tragic drama about addiction. But more than anything else, Cooper’s A Star is Born is like a greatest hits compilation of every previous iteration of the story. There are beats pulled from every prior incarnation to the point where A Star is Born starts to feel like its own weird subgenre.
What’s it about?
Jackson Maine (Cooper) is a musician struggling with addictions to pills and booze and in denial about his gradual hearing loss. After a show one night, his driver takes him to a drag club, where he sees Ally (Lady Gaga) perform, and he is instantly taken by her voice. The pair chats all night, and Jackson encourages her to start writing and singing her own songs, as that’s the one thing that will make her unique as an artist. She’s reluctant to make herself that vulnerable, having been told since childhood that she’s not beautiful enough to really make it — an idea reinforced by her well-meaning but unhelpful father Lorenzo (a fantastic performance by Andrew Dice Clay).
The next day, Jackson flies Ally to one of his gigs and invites her to sing with him onstage. The audience loves them together, and soon, Ally joins Jackson on tour. The two quickly fall in love as Ally cuts her teeth singing as part of Jackson’s band. Soon, she signs with a manager and starts building her own career.
But as Ally’s career begins to take off, Jackson ends up on the decline. His brother and road manager (Sam Elliott) leaves him, and while Ally inspires Jackson to get sober in fits and spurts, he nevertheless keeps falling off the wagon at the worst possible moments. He’s unable to cope with his addiction and Ally’s rocket ship success, and their role reversal begins to add further strain to their once-idyllic relationship.
What’s it really about?
Cooper’s film doesn’t make any bones about it: this is a movie about addiction and the crippling effects the disease has not just on the addict, but on anybody in their orbit. When Ally meets Jackson, he’s already been an alcoholic for much of his life, a trait he seems to have inherited from his father, who was also a heavy drinker. Everything about his rock n roll lifestyle has enabled him to feed that beast, no matter the cost. Everyone enables him, from his brother to his driver, and only when Ally enters the picture does he consider that he might actually have a problem.
But when things get tough, the same people who helped and protected Jackson bear the brunt of the fallout. He blames his brother for things he doesn’t remember; he publicly embarrasses Ally at key moments because he can’t stay sober. At times, the film is excruciating, and Cooper’s performance zeroes in on the anxiety and fear Jackson feels as he tries to grapple with a life and a problem that have swung wildly out of his control.
At the same time, Cooper the filmmaker is also interested in exploring how vital support structures are in encouraging positive growth in people. Jackson is a drunk, but he’s also Ally’s mentor and biggest cheerleader, and when they meet, he’s able to convince her to set aside years of thinking that she isn’t good enough to share her talents with the world. Ally has grown up with a father who was an aspiring singer and convinced himself that he was just as talented as Frank Sinatra, but he just didn’t have that intangible “it” factor that could have made him a star. Ally has internalized that excuse her entire life, but Jackson convinces her that her voice and artistic worldview will make her work stand out. Once she decides to own that, she becomes unstoppable, but she might not have ever had the confidence without Jackson, which makes the growing disconnect in their relationship all the more painful.
Is it good?
Ally’s overnight success and rocket to stardom is inherently cheesy. It’s pure Hollywood wish fulfillment, which would normally tend to make this entire endeavor feel a bit flimsy and disposable. But Cooper is able to overcome that with a film that’s incredibly emotional and fearlessly dark when required. A lot of it comes down to two performances: Cooper and Lady Gaga have remarkable chemistry as Jackson and Ally, and he brings a world-weariness to his portrayal that makes it seem like Jackson is years past the point of no return, even though he hasn’t quite realized it.
Ally, on the other hand, is filled with trepidation. She can put on a full-on show singing “La Vie En Rose” when she’s among friends in the drag club, but put her in a situation where she has to sing her own songs, and she nearly drops into a panic. Watching her transform into a self-assured powerhouse so quickly may not quite be realistic, but Gaga’s assured performance makes it all feel real and grounded. She gives Ally a steely internal core, and while it may be something Ally needs to discover as a performer, it’s something she has innately when it comes to her personal relationships, whether she’s standing up to her father or demanding better from Jackson.
Right from the start, the movie is visually bold. Director of photography Matthew Libatique (Black Swan) puts the camera up onstage with Jackson early in the film, establishing a cinéma vérité feel that gives the story’s operatic nature a grit and realism that it holds on to throughout. Under most circumstances, the many musical numbers would also contribute to the old-school Hollywood-fantasy feel. But here, the actors largely eschew lip-syncing in favor of live performances. Lady Gaga’s ability as a singer is already well-established, but Cooper spends much of the film singing and playing guitar as well. If the audience doesn’t believe that aspect of his performance as Jackson, everything else would fall apart, and it’s to his credit that Jackson feels so authentic.
Also key to the film’s success is the way it absolutely refuses to flinch when Ally and Jackson face real turmoil and his addiction begins to have true repercussions. Given the rags-to-riches nature of Ally’s storyline, it would be easy for the film to soft-pedal the darker aspects of their relationship, but instead, A Star is Born leans into them without reservation. It works almost as a dramatic bait and switch: luring the audience in with the aspirational story before hitting them with the much more troubling evolution of Ally and Jackson’s relationship.
It’s impossible to watch Jackson’s storyline without being reminded of the struggles of countless musicians and celebrities over the past decade — or of just everyday, ordinary people who are fighting addiction. It gives the movie a timely layer of resonance that makes it seem even more vital, its uplifting moments more triumphant, and its moment of darkness even more defeating. Cooper’s A Star is Born is unquestionably a film born out of our current era and modern struggles with addiction. In that way, it serves as a potent reminder that even the most familiar stories can be used to examine the issues and concerns of a given moment.
What should it be rated?
It’s apparently been rated R for brief nudity and substance abuse, but PG-13 really might be more appropriate for this content.
How can I actually watch it?
A Star is Born opens in American theaters on October 5th.