In film school, we learned that one of the most intriguing of artistic collisions is when a strong auteur director with a signature style decides to take on a genre with its own rigorous formulaic demands. The result is usually something unique, combining the elements of both director and genre while demonstrating what happens when the two collide.
The story of A Star is Born is its own genre at this point, and its various versions are worthy of study not only as films in themselves, but as reflections of their creators and the times in which the films were created. To me, this is the fifth telling of the tale, not the fourth, as the first in my mind is 1932’s What Price Hollywood?, directed by George Cukor, whose only major difference is that it separated the love interest and the character with the failing career, while the subsequent versions combined the two. (See https://film-prof.com/2018/09/25/two-prototypes-what-price-hollywood-1932-and-stranger-on-the-third-floor-1940/)
Since 1954’s version with Judy Garland (also directed by Cukor), the films have all been musicals, or at least dramas with a great deal of music. The current version is no exception, of course, featuring a surprising tour-de-force performance by Lady Gaga as Ally, and an unsurprising great performance by director/co-writer/star Bradley Cooper as Jack. The film is beautiful to look at, intense, and occasionally confusing.
Watching the film just for the performances is a worthwhile venture, as the two leads bite into their roles with energy, not quite chewing the scenery, but not holding back, either. They are joined by Sam Elliott, a sure-fire Oscar nominee, for a solid and grounding performance that provides some needed real-world perspective in this crazy arena of famous musical artists. Gaga, of course, is the big revelation, and she gives herself over completely to the role with all its ups, down, joys, and disappointments. Cooper has dug out a new basement-low voice for himself in both singing and speaking, and reminds us again that this is one of our best actors, with an astonishing range and now, solid musical chops on display. He and Gaga contributed to the writing of the majority of the songs, but the songs feel natural to the characters and don’t come off as a second-rate vanity effort.
As a director, Cooper is certainly an actor’s director, but he succeeds in keeping this a story of people relating to people, even as it’s set against the world of huge concert venues and a heartless and often soulless music world. Cooper keeps the focus on Gaga and his character’s relationship with her, never letting the film get sidetracked or overwhelmed by other concerns.
The film hits all the required notes (pun intended), from the tagline of “I just wanted to take another look at you” to the embarrassing awards ceremony to the tragic end. What’s going to be the center of study for a while are the differences between this version and the previous incarnations. Perhaps as a nod to the singer’s earlier audiences, Gaga’s character Ally is introduced to us musically in a drag club. The film does its best to ease that into the plot, but it seems a little forced. What is occasionally perplexing is the film’s view of Ally’s musical directions once she becomes famous. Are we to go along with all the dancing, lights and costumes? Ally seems to have dancers imposed on her at the start of her rise, then drops them (and we applaud), then brings them back as she becomes a better version of Britney Spears. Just when we might go along with Jack’s negative reaction to all the glitz and noise, he is just arriving at his jerk phase, and he comes across as one who’s beginning to lose it than one who might legitimately object as a musical artist.
In keeping with the times, there are dozens and dozens of f-bombs (this is not a film for children and many young folks), even a few more than might be considered natural in this environment. And then there is one very quick shot that wins the award for the most gratuitous piece of nudity in any film this decade.
While the 1976 version of A Star is Born with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson is widely considered the weakest of the named versions, this one contends with the 1937 and 1954 versions for consideration as the best. The differences between the two earliest named versions are significant enough that a ranking of one over the other comes down primarily to taste and preference. The same can be said of this one. The leads in all three films are great, the films speak to their times, and at least in this version and the 1954 version, there is an element of surprise, here with Gaga and there with Garland’s stellar adult performance. The differences ultimately arise from the actors, the directors and the times. Comparing is fun, but in terms of determining a best, ultimately a joyful futility.