Directed by: Bradley Cooper
Premise: A rock star (Bradley Cooper) has a chance encounter with an aspiring singer (Lady Gaga). They fall in love and he launches her music career but the rocker’s substance abuse threatens both of them.
What Works: 2018’s A Star is Born is the fifth iteration of this story following George Cukor’s 1932 picture What Price Hollywood?and subsequent feature film remakes in 1937, 1954, and 1976. The formula of each version is essentially the same but the premise is remarkably transferable to any age and each version of A Star is Born is a time capsule of its day. The 2018 version draws a lot from the 1976 film that starred Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Like that movie, the story unfolds within the music industry (as opposed to a Hollywood studio) and he is a rock and roller fueled by booze and drugs and she becomes a pop music sensation. That’s ironic since the 1976 film is easily the worst version of A Star is Born and the 2018 picture is one of the best. This version is told with style, energy, and grit offset by a tangible human frailty. A Star is Born is primarily a love story and this is where the movie excels. Bradley Cooper plays Jack, a rock and roll star crippled by substance abuse. He’s a mess but he’s also charming and Cooper balances those qualities to make Jack an empathetic character. Cooper’s performance shows an understanding that addiction isn’t really about drugs or alcohol but about internal pain. Jack is a tortured soul which leads him to substance abuse but also allows him to recognize the talent and soulfulness of Ally, played by Lady Gaga. Her character begins A Star is Born as a waitress with dreams of singing. When famous people play blue collar characters it sometimes rings false but Gaga is convincing in the part. The courtship between Jack and Ally is done carefully and to great effect. Jack sees Ally as a person first, not as a way of making money, and Jack nurtures her musical career because he recognizes Ally’s artistry. Their love story is believable and viewers will want to see the relationship succeed. That makes Jack’s substance abuse all the more heartbreaking as it overtakes their lives. 2018’s A Star is Born also has some excellent musical performances. The movie includes original songs performed by Cooper and Gaga and they do something extraordinary. The story doesn’t pause for a musical number. Cooper and Gaga act through them and convey character growth in the midst of the songs. That gives the musical numbers narrative purpose as well as emotional impact.
What Doesn’t: No iteration of A Star is Born holds many surprises. The show business cautionary tale is an old story and every version of A Star is Born works through all the familiar beats. The filmmakers of the 2018 edition do not change the formula; this is fundamentally the same story. The remake is justified because the filmmakers do it better than most other versions. But even viewers who are new to A Star is Born will probably anticipate where this story is going. The one major misstep in 2018’s A Star is Born is the failure to meaningfully critique today’s music industry. Ally establishes herself with artful songs delivered with soul. That’s part of what Jack sees in Ally and why he falls in love with her. But the corporate music industry turns Ally into a generic pop act with an artificial image and inane songs. There is a critical point in the movie when Jack calls her out on that but the moviemakers never follow this idea through. Instead, A Star is Born remains within the boundaries of the show business cautionary tale but without really saying anything provocative about the industry.
Bottom Line: 2018’s A Star is Born is arguably the best version of this story. It may not reinvent the show business narrative but it retells this story with intelligence and depth as well as an impressive visual style. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga are terrific and Cooper makes this one of the most impressive directorial debuts in recent memory.
Episode: #725 (November 11, 2018)