One of the many things I’ve learned about movies as I’ve gotten older is that, if you wait long enough, everything good will eventually get re-made. Sometimes, even things that weren’t good get re-made. In the case of A Star Is Born, it didn’t just get re-made once, but now, 81 years after the original, 64 after the first re-make and 42 years after the RE-re-make, we are given a fourth version of the same story. Is fourth time the charm? Well, that depends.
Something that is either a detriment or an advantage to me watching Bradley Cooper’s current version of A Star is Born is the fact that I have never seen any of the three previous movie incarnations of William A. Wellman and Robert Carson’s original story about a young singer and the aging, alcoholic rock star who propels her to stardom. The original, from 1937, starred Fredric March and Janet Gaynor. The first re-make, in 1954, starred Judy Garland and James Mason. And then in 1976 came the Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson version. And now, 2018’s A Star is Born stars Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. If it seems crazy, even in an industry where original thinking is as rare as Halley’s Comet, that the same story would continue to be re-done so many times, it will all make sense when you see it. A Star is Born is a story custom-made for Hollywood, made for the big screen, made for a world where the collision of music and movies is often box office gold. Many pop stars have starred in movies where they played some version of themselves….some worked (The Bodyguard, 8 Mile, The Rose, Purple Rain) and some didn’t (Glitter, Crossroads), but they have always been fascinating. And some pop stars look and feel more at home on the big screen than others. While I’ve never seen Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland or Barbra Streisand’s takes on this character, I can’t imagine any of them inhabiting this story any better or with more bravura than Lady Gaga does. I only wish the rest of the movie could have risen up to meet her.
A Star is Born is seemingly Bradley Cooper’s passion project, as he not only stars in and produces the film but also directs and co-writes the screenplay (along with Eric Roth and Will Fetters), both firsts for him. Unfortunately, you can see how hard he’s working. I always felt Cooper was an actor who came off as just a little too zealous on screen—American Sniper and American Hustle, for two examples—and here, in a role that you just know he cares a LOT about, he comes off as unnatural, just trying way too hard. He tries to ugly himself up and does something really weird with his voice that just becomes annoying after a while, and most of it doesn’t work. He does some of the best hair acting I’ve ever seen, but that’s not enough to convince us that Bradley Cooper is a haggard, declining shell of a man.
Gaga, on the other hand, looks totally comfortable and natural in every moment. She may not be the best actress in the world—far from it—but her energy and commitment to the role makes her not only believable and relatable, but totally watchable. And that’s only when she’s acting. When she actually sings in this movie, it is nothing short of exhilarating. I had tried to avoid reading anything about this movie, but it was hard to avoid the buzz about the soundtrack, particularly one song and one scene that, for me, makes the entire movie worthwhile. During this one scene, every hair on my body stood on end and I was literally gasping in awe of the sheer ferocity and energy of the moment. I came home and instantly found the song so I could listen to it again—apparently, I wasn’t the only one to do this as I see the song is #1 in iTunes and the movie just opened 6 days ago. All the power of A Star is Born comes from the soundtrack, which features 17 original songs, most of them co-written by Gaga and Cooper. Her enormous talent is on display in every way here and the movie is at its best when it basks in her glow.
Unfortunately, A Star is Born doesn’t have much to recommend it other than Gaga’s star power. The original story just doesn’t translate to a modern setting. There’s something about a grizzled old drunk meeting up with an awkward and insecure younger woman and taking her under his wing that works really well in the ‘70s but feels kinda creepy in 2018. I really didn’t even know who Cooper was trying to be. And as for the story and plot, it’s thin, conventional and surprisingly clunky.
Still, despite the pedestrian story and Cooper’s inauthenticity, A Star is Born is recommended for the pitch-perfect casting of Lady Gaga and a performance that showcases her tremendous talent and raw energy. A star is born, indeed.