We’re at the point in the year where we’re about to be bombarded with the “important” movies of the year, the films that will be in contention to win all of the various awards the that movie industry have set up for themselves. The films that have been seen by critics at various film festivals through the year, and that have built up their own buzz and anticipation, are finally coming out to be seen by the general population, with all the baggage that’s inherent in this structure. Because sometimes we get films that have only been seen by a very specific group of critics, who then spend months over-hyping the film to the point that it almost inevitably causes disappointment when it finally gets released. And, being as I’m saying all of this at the start of an article about A Star Is Born, you may assume that I didn’t end up loving this movie, at least as much as the critics who have been gushing about it for the last few months. And, that’s not really the case. I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it. It’s flawed, but interesting. It ended up causing me to have some very conflicting thoughts and actually ponder it, something that’s always a real treat. It’s a film that seems to have so much working against it. A passion project from a first time director who is also staring and co-writing, a central performance from an actress who has very little experience acting, a remake of a beloved classic film, and the burden of high anticipation. Any one of those factors could contribute to a film that generally fails to find its audience, let alone all of them. And yet, I feel like it ends up succeeding in spite of its many issues and flaws. It’s not a great film, but it’s at least an interesting one. And one that I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t win basically all of the Oscars.
The film revolves around the relationship between country-rock singer Jackson Maine and struggling songwriter Ally. Jackson is an enormously popular singer, but he’s fallen on hard times. He’s creatively bankrupt, is barely a functioning alcoholic, and encroaching tinnitus is threatening to take the one thing in life he’s good at. But his life changes when he makes an impromptu stop at a drag-club one night in search of liquor. Because he meets Ally, a woman with a gorgeous voice that he instantly becomes enamored with. He ends up spending the entire night chatting with her, learning that her dream is to become a singer/songwriter, but has never caught a break. Jackson is convinced that Ally has real talent, and the next day ends up sending his driver to her home, insisting that she board a plane and fly to his next show. She ends up quitting her job and jetting away with her best friend, arriving just in time for Jackson to force her onto the stage. She’s initially hesitant, but the two end up playing a song that she wrote and played for him the previous night, and it’s a huge success. Their duet becomes a viral sensation, and Jackson convinces her to go on tour with him. The two start to fall in love, and continue to collaborate together, letting Jackson become more creatively fertile than he’s been in years. However, this also gives her some insight into what a shell is life has become, drinking himself into a stupor every night just to ignore the sound of his tinnitus.
Ally starts to become a star in her own right, gaining all sorts of acclaim for her songs and her voice. And, she eventually approached by an oily agent Rez who starts her on her own career path. Ally stops spending as much time with Jackson, focusing on her own songs, look, and style, leaving him to his own devices. Which doesn’t go very well. He backslides into pretty severe alcoholism, culminating in a strange day where Ally finds him in a former friends’ home after a massive bender, causing Jackson to propose. Ally accepts, and the two immediately get married, doing their best to start a life together while Ally’s career start to explode. She releases an album, goes on Saturday Night Live, and ends up getting nominated for a Grammy for best new artist. And, she wins. However, during her acceptance speech a massively drunk Jackson climbs onto the stage, wets his pants, and generally embarrasses her. Which is the last straw. Ally insists that Jackson goes into rehab to finally clean his act up. And, after several months at a ritzy rehab facility, he returns to his old life, ready to be a better husband and get his career back on track. But, as Ally starts making plans for their future he realizes that he’ll never be whole. Jackson sees that he’ll only ever be a burden to Ally, so one night while she’s performing at a concert he goes into the garage and hangs himself. Ally then begins her new life as a widow, trying to live up to the potential that Jackson saw in her.
I’ve never actually seen another version of this film. This is the fourth time that this story has been brought to the silver screen, and while it sounds like there are some major similarities, there are also some major differences. This is yet another version of this apparently timeless story, and I think it’s one that will manage to stand on its own two feet. Because this is a surprisingly well-crafted film. I’ve often found that films that are directed by former actors, especially their first films, can feature some good performances but be rather lackluster in most other aspects of filmmaking. They know how to get a good performance out of their costars, but they don’t really know what they’re doing behind the camera. But this is honestly one of the best made films I’ve seen from a first-time actor turned director. The script is well-done, the songs are legitimately catchy and good, and the acting is pretty great across the board. This is certainly one of Bradley Cooper’s finest performances, and it’s clear that he put a lot of time and love into Jackson Maine, creating a version of this character that will be remembered fondly. But he’s matched by a stunningly great Lady Gaga, who managed to surpass every expectation I had from her, coming off as wonderfully naturalistic, giving us a performance that seems incredibly personal. There certainly seems to be a lot of herself put into Ally, and I was really impressed with the way that she performed in this film. So, it’s well-written, well-directed, has good songs, and generally good acting. But it didn’t really work wonders for me.
And I think the primary reason for that, and the reason I really don’t have a whole lot of interest in checking out any of the previous version of this story, is that I just fundamentally don’t think the central premise works. I see that the various versions of the story have some differences, and sometimes looks more at the destructive nature of fame, but the central conceit, that a famous man meets a talented woman and his career starts to fall apart while hers ascends, just comes off as toxic. Jackson Maine is bordering on being washed up, completely bereft of creativity, when he meets a woman who seems to be nothing but raw talent. And, he forces her into a life of fame, leeching that talent off to save himself. But, when she gets too famous and stops devoting herself completely to him, he self-destructs and ends up selfishly killing himself, burdening her forever with guilt. And, I think that there’s a way that story could be told that could deconstruct this notion a bit, show Jackson Maine as a villain, someone who felt entitled to play with Ally’s career any way he wanted, only to be insulted when she started rising above him. But, instead, it seems like this film thinks that Jackson was some sort of brave soul. He’s deadset against “selling out,” wanting to remain authentic and avoiding the sort of crass commercialism that Ally’s solo music starts to fall into. And yet, all the while, he’s a bit of a hypocrite, so far into his own drunken world that he has no idea what’s going on around him, and who he’s hurting in the process. And the film just doesn’t seem aware that he’s a shitty character. That, or it is aware, and just doesn’t care that perpetuating this trope of the tortured male who needs to drain the creativity from a female Muse is incredibly harmful.
A Star is Born was written by Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters, directed by Bradley Cooper, and released by Warner Bros. Pictures, 2018.
Categories: Reel Talk