Before this present incarnation, there had already been three previous versions of "A Star is Born." The original version (written by William Welman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell) was released in 1937, starring Janet Gaynor (as Esther Blodgett) and Fredric March (as Norman Maine) set in the movie industry.
In 1954, there was another version also set in the movie industry but about musicals, starring Judy Garland (as Esther Blodgett) and James Mason (as Norman Maine). In 1976, there was a second remake set completely in the music industry, starring Barbra Streisand (as Esther Hoffman) and Kris Kristofferson (as John Norman Howard).
I had not seen any of these three older films before, but I did have a general idea about the basic story. An established star nurtures the career of a new artist whom he loved. While her star swung upward, his own career would decline. It was a classic story about the entertainment industry and the rise and fall of its stars. Hollywood simply could not get enough of it, and decided to remake it a third time.
Ally was a waitress who moonlit as a singer in a drag queen joint. Jackson Maine was a famous rock star who happened to be drinking in the audience that night, and was enthralled by Ally's version of "La Vie en Rose." From that fortuitous meeting, Jack featured Ally in one of his big arena concerts, and their surprise duet of Ally's original song "Shallow" (a song bound for Oscar gold) became viral with his fans.
The two also connected on a personal level and became husband and wife. Eventually, Ally was picked up by a major record label and was acclaimed as a rising pop star. Meanwhile, Jack became more and more consumed by his alcoholism and drug use, which negatively affected his career and was a source of serious embarrassment for both him and Ally. Can he turn his life around and restore their damaged partnership?
Lady Gaga was positively glorious in the role of Ally. She was very believable as a young idealistic singer-songwriter. The production designer even made sure we saw a a framed cover of Carole King's album "Tapestry" on her bedroom wall so we know what kind of artist Ally was. Gaga's singing voice, with its rich tangible emotions, needs to be heard to be fully appreciated, and could not be described by mere words. This was a powerful breakthrough performance of Lady Gaga as a film actress. There is hype that she will figure prominently in the race for Oscar Best Actress, and I can certainly see that happening.
Bradley Cooper auspiciously debuts as a director in this film, and boldly decided to direct himself in the role of Jackson Maine. He really looked and sounded like an actual rock superstar when he was performing his music, which was very impressive considering that he did not play the guitar before doing this role. (He had guitar lessons for 18 months to master it.) Cooper felt like a younger Jeff Bridges in his Oscar-winning role "Crazy Heart," that of an alcoholic country singing star. As director, he made sure that Jackson did not get totally overshadowed by Ally, but the effort can come across as self-indulgent for some.
Sam Elliott played the role of Jackson's much-older brother Bobby, who raised him after their father died. He did well in his confrontation scenes with Cooper. Andrew Dice Clay had completely mellowed out from the offensive characters he played in the 1990s. He was surprisingly delightful as Ally's starstruck father, Lorenzo. Another 90s comedian, Dave Chappelle, played Noodles, an old musician friend of Jackson's. Rafi Gavron looked too young and too stiff to be completely believable as Ally's manager Rez.
As the fourth iteration of this same story, this version had to give something new to make it relevant and necessary as a remake. I'm sure viewers who have seen one or all the older films will have their own opinions about that. I cannot make that judgment myself because I had not seen the previous ones, so therefore, I can only judge this film on its own, and not on its merits as a remake.
The first half of the film was more about Ally and her rise. We see how Jack met Ally, their first night hanging out together, and the first time they sang on stage together. These parts of the story were perfectly told onscreen. With the camera of cinematographer Matthew Libatique tightly focused on their faces most of the time, we immediately felt the spark that lit up between them and saw how it developed into a bright ball of fire. This part of the film was so raw and honest with heartfelt chemistry between the two characters, truly amazing filmmaking by Bradley Cooper.
The second half of the film was more about Jack and his fall. This part felt long to watch as it became a familiar melodrama about musicians and their drinking and drugs, which we've all seen before. On the other end of the stick, as pop star Ally was hitting the big time and with the artificial red hair and sexy dance numbers and the Grammy ceremony, she also lost the simple genuine person we met and fell in love with in Act 1. When the whole scenario blew up to become larger than real life for Jack and Ally, the film sort of lost the charming heady intimacy that made the first half so beautiful. 8/10
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."