“Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,
Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die…”
This opening lyric and recurring motif is a bold supposition from the lips of Bradley Cooper, as he goes Full Dennis Waterman™ in starring, directing, co-writing, co-producing, writing the theme tune and singing the theme tune to 2018’s A Star Is Born. It’s the fourth cinematic rendering of this tale of rags to riches via clinical depression and substance abuse, with Warner Bros hoping to bring a new spin to a story as old as showbusiness.
A Star Is Born‘s first act is a beautifully chaotic affair, with cinematographer Matthew Libatique only breaking away from the intimate hand-held trailing of his subjects for the occasional locked-off shot, mathematically composed to linger in the memory. While it’s obviously reliant upon the taste of the individual, the music scenes in the first act are absolutely outstanding, whether it’s a full rendition of a song or just a snippet. Expertly crafted pieces, meticulously performed, every one an earworm-in-waiting.
The inherent strife of country music may be a cliché of course, but this is where the real emotion of the movie lies, with the angst of characters we’ve barely met communicated perfectly through a three-and-a-half minute burst of co-ordinated harmony. The ‘goosebump’ moments in the film’s trailer are even more hair-raising in the final cut, so naturally when the sanitising effects of Ally’s (Lady Gaga) fame begin to be introduced, the bristling intensity of the piece dips accordingly. The central theme of existential numbness plays like a New Country b-side to Inside Llewyn Davis.
Cooper swaps out his casual stubble for a full, unkempt beard in this role, duly adopting Hardy’s Law™ of muffled pronunciation (unless Maine is singing into a microphone, in which case his voice carries studio-levels of clarity). Sam Elliott also arrives as Jackson’s older brother and manager Bobby, bearing only a voluminous moustache but illustrating that we perhaps shouldn’t mock this verbal affliction as it’s clearly a gene carried through the family…
Joking aside, it’s clear from the outset that Cooper has committed to Jackson’s side of the story above all else, both as a performer and director. We open with our male lead taking to the stage in his trademark shambolic style, the magic snapping in once his fingers touch wound-steel and his mouth comes within range of a microphone grille. And we see this ritual time and time again, in close range. Cooper doesn’t want the cinema audience to feel like they’re the concert audience, he wants them there on the stage. Although we see crowds (filmed during 2017’s Coachella festival) during A Star Is Born, not a single shot of the stage is taken from ground-level. Yet at the same time, viewers never feel like they’re part of the band either, just onlookers who are fortunate enough to be witnessing this first-hand from a unique limbo.
This disconnect reflects the age-old (and thoroughly self-indulgent) irk that an artist can never be in the audience for their own show. While the noise, confusion, harmony and adrenaline of playing on-stage are addictive in their own right, they’re a world away from the unique buzz which is felt in a crowd of thousands, collectively hanging on every note blasting toward them.
Conversely, the first time we meet Ally the performance is shot from the audience’s point of view (albeit in a bar). But this is only because that’s where Jackson is sitting. Ally (more properly, Gaga) may be the star of this show in every sense, but it’s a tale told firmly from Jackson’s perspective. And viewers taking their seats had better be fans of both Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, because Cooper isn’t particularly interested in directing anything else.
Speaking of stagecraft, musicians in the audience may well raise an eyebrow at the number of times Cooper pulls theatrically away from his microphone, while the vocal line they’re hearing continues at the same volume and intensity. More tellingly, this doesn’t occur when Gaga is in the spotlight, an artist who has a different ratio of stage-to-screentime experience in her CV. While we’re splitting hairs, A Star Is Born is also a movie which hopes its audience won’t know that a studio can’t record a vocal track when someone’s also holding their monitor headphones open a foot away from the mic.
As is so often the case, much of what audiences take away from A Star Is Born will hinge on expectation. Whereas the trailer suggests a parable set in the music industry, it quickly becomes closer to the film industry’s idea of what the music industry must be like. To the point where Cooper is not only homaging previous versions of the title, but also lifting well-worn beats from movies like Rock Star and Wayne’s World.
Even if the viewer doesn’t know the direction of the story beforehand, everything in the runtime is telegraphed a little too neatly. Whether it’s the central dramatic shifts, the metaphorical moustache-twirling of Rafi Gavron’s pop-oriented music manager or just an alcoholic wearing a tan suit to an awards ceremony, there are few surprises once the lights go down.
Another fundamental issue is Cooper’s focus on the central characters at the expense of a large supporting cast. Jackson Maine is, by his very nature, vague and alcoholically enigmatic. While we learn what we need to know about the superstar through Ally, we glean remarkably little about her motivations in turn (a ‘stage-dad’, that’s about it). Peripheral players are barely introduced, and even secondary characters’ names often aren’t used until their second or third appearances (and if anyone knows why Ally’s father and his friends constantly hang around in the house at all hours of the day and night watching horse-racing but are wearing shirts and ties, please let us know in the comments).
We can see why Jackson falls in love with Ally, but we’re never quite convinced of what she sees in him. Despite her career trajectory, it’s clear Ally is not intentionally using his status as a stepping stone, yet we see little other than slurred compliments, professionally tousled hair and a great smile as to what she’s really fallen for (not that this can’t be enough, we suppose – maybe that’s the lesson?).
When the tide turns in the second act and the reality of Ally’s Faustian pact begins to sink in, this is as over explained as our heroine’s new musical direction is depressingly bland. The depiction of this micro-managed, over-produced arm of the entertainment business feels heavyhanded, even for a picture painted in the broadest of strokes.
As the stage routines become more choreographed, so Cooper’s directional resolve falters. We spend less time with Jackson and more with Ally, but the foundations of her character aren’t strong enough to hold the dramatic weight loaded upon them. Luckily, Gaga’s capability as a performer mostly overcomes this, but the actress’s personality has to over-compensate as her character is shredded away. A Star Is Born begins to run out of things to say just after the hour-mark, and Cooper struggles to develop characters the story has already destroyed.
The feeling certainly prevails that Warner Bros are thinking about prospective soundtrack sales in the same way that Disney have an eye on lunchboxes and action figures. And that’s fine in itself (it’s a business, after all), but stings a little in a tale which claims to study the justness of artistic integrity. One rather suspects that an earlier draft of the screenplay was a damning indictment against the entertainment business, until the edges were sanded off and it became part of the problem instead.
There are moments of real greatness here, but these are largely confined to the first act. A shift which the audience is almost cruelly reminded of when the film crescendos into a power-ballad interspersed with a flashback montage (in case anyone in the auditorium can’t work out what that scene means).
An all-too-accurate depiction of how something raw and beautiful can be moulded into the insipid and formulaic, in this respect the film leads by example. As a cautionary tale, A Star Is Born is fine if somewhat unremarkable. And while the central duo are irresistibly solid, it would be surprising if this product ages as the classic everyone at the studio is hoping for.
While it would be unfair to conclude that the old ways should be allowed to die, it would certainly be an idea to take a closer look at how they’re repackaged and what they’re bringing to the party. Come for the soundtrack, stay for Lady Gaga…
A Star Is Born is in UK cinemas from 5 October 2018.