In 2018’s A Star is Born, now the fourth major Hollywood version of this well-worn tale, Bradley Cooper directs and stars as Jackson Maine, an alcoholic country-western singer who becomes smitten with a talented new singer he discovers (Laga Gaga’s Ally) – – but increasingly disturbed by her whirlwind success.
For anyone that has seen the 1937, 1954, or 1976 versions of the story, this new Star is Born will be especially familiar, if undeniably crowd-pleasing, stuff. The hoary old clichés that were probably old hat back in 1937 are still present here, but Cooper and co-writers Eric Roth and Will Fetters add some unusually dark subtext that lends to alternate interpretations of the material.
The writers borrow the music industry setting from the 1976 Barbra Streisand-Kris Kristofferson version of the film, and Cooper’s gravelly-voiced Jackson feels like a clear nod to Kristofferson’s real-life image, if not necessarily his character from the earlier film.
Otherwise, however, this new Star is Born hews closer in spirit to the earlier versions of the story, and even perhaps the ‘37 original; it reverts some climactic miscues from the ‘70s version, and most likely comes out a better picture because of it.
Cooper is excellent as Jackson, and perhaps due to his participation as writer and director, the character tends to hog most of the spotlight. But he’s matched by Lady Gaga, in her first starring role, as the charismatic Ally: she’s already a star in this version, she just hasn’t had her chance to shine.
In the new A Star is Born, Maine meets Ally in a drag bar that he stumbles into after a gig; her performance of La Vie en Rose is so entrancing that he immediately smitten. After some hesitation, she and friend Ramon (Anthony Ramos) are headed to Jackson’s next concert, where he pulls Ally up on stage.
The rest of the film takes us through a familiar path: Ally’s instant stardom (which is, unfortunately, mostly conveyed through dialogue), her developing romance with Jackson, his reaction to her success, and his own battle with alcohol addiction.
Excellent support is provided by Sam Elliott, as Jackson’s brother and manager, who shares two of the film’s finest moments, and Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s sympathetic father with only tangential relation to the main story. But the film combines two characters from previous versions of the movie to create Rez (Rafi Gavron), Ally’s British manager and a cookie-cutter villain.
Gavron’s Rez ties into the biggest departure this Star is Born makes from previous versions of the story. The first two films were set in Hollywood and the third in the world of country music, but this one dives into modern pop music and the baggage that particular genre brings with it.
Lady Gaga’s Ally, for example, tells Jackson of the music producers that told her that she wasn’t pretty enough, or that her nose was too big – – references, perhaps, to the performer’s real-life experiences in the pop music world. Gaga, of course, is known for her drastic changes in on-stage appearance.
But Jackson tells Ally he likes her nose, and she, too, is happy with her natural appearance here. “I don’t want to become a blonde,” she informs Rez when he insists on changing her hair color. But the next time we see her she has changed her hair color – – along with her attire, style, and stage presence.
And when Jackson observes her success, as the musical guest on SNL, he doesn’t become jealous, as in earlier versions of the film. Here, he becomes despondent because (in his view) she has sold out, and not stayed true to herself. In the film’s final scene, Ally performs a heartfelt song written by Jackson – – which could be seen as an ultimate act of betrayal.
I’m not entirely sure the filmmakers intend it to be seen that way. But it adds, at least, some interesting new layers to this 80-year-old material. A first-rate presentation in almost every other way, it’s only that material that keeps 2018’s A Star is Born from being truly great.