Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
It can be so easy to complain about the number of remakes that are produced nowadays, what with Hollywood studios seemingly remaking whatever they see fit because they are seen as a safe bet against the risk that comes with making something original and new.
Having said that, there is something weirdly reassuring that once every generation, a new version of A Star is Born will roll around like clockwork. While the first version of the film to bear the title was released in 1937, produced by David O Selznick and with a script co-written by Dorothy Parker, that version arguably had its basis in being a semi-remake of 1932’s What Price Hollywood. Flashforward to 1951, another version was produced for television, but the classic interpretation that hovers large over the entire A Star is Born legacy is the Judy Garland/James Mason interpretation that premiered in 1954 and was directed by George Cukor.
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Twenty-two years later, Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson put a 70s spin on to the story, with Streisand’s co-star at one point very nearly Elvis Presley, a piece of casting that might have actually worked wonders. It wouldn’t be until 2018 that audiences would be granted another new version of the story, and while it, and every other remake, has brought the story up to date to critically acclaimed and even award-winning effect, the one thing that can be learned from the several versions of this story is that it if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
2018’s version marked the directorial debut of its star Bradley Cooper, and while co-star Lady Gaga had appeared in American Horror Story prior to this, it’s arguable that this is the film that made a large part of many critics and audiences realise that the singing superstar had the potential to be a massive film star also. The correlation between music and film star is frequently a major facet when it comes to the casting of those in front of the camera of the Star is Born story. Judy Garland made her name in MGM musicals, and Streisand and Kristofferson were famous for singing and acting prior to appearing in the 1976 version, so it stood to reason that Cooper would cast a music superstar in his own interpretation of the story.
Cooper himself appeared in front of the camera wowing audiences with his singing voice just as much as with his once in lifetime chemistry with Gaga. The magic the two of them made with the increasingly complex romance they portray in front of the camera was there for all to see when the pair performed the instantly iconic ‘Shallow’ in front of a live audience at the 2019 Academy Awards where the film was inevitably nominated for a number of awards. The heart of the many productions bearing the A Star is Born name is how the film flits between the achingly romantic to tragic. Like so many films that centre themselves on musicians, there is a burstingly alive quality to how it captures the creativity of creating music, but also the downfalls that come with success from its two romantic leads at opposite ends of the career ladder.
Once again, one might find themselves inclined to complain that the 2018 version is just another example of Hollywood running out of ideas and turning to the classics, but Cooper’s film is no lazy retread. Where the 1954 version is focused on the movie industry, and the 1976 version very much on the 70s music scene, Cooper focused – like the latter – on the modern-day music industry, but in a way that still feels fresh and new, a world of Saturday Night Live appearances, social media and everything that comes with the modern discourse.
All the tropes and story beats are still present and correct (the meet-cute, the initial burst of stardom, the disastrous award show sequence, the tragic ending), but it says a lot about the original screenplay for the 1932 and 1937 versions that the story has an aura of magic to it that forever works no matter when it’s being made. Like Steven Spielberg’s recent West Side Story (although maybe not as overtly as that), Cooper finds ways to make A Star is Born modern and new, not to mention current, but without forgetting what it was that made it work in the first place.
Cooper, who had been building a great body of work ever since his star-making role on the television series Alias back in 2001, steps behind the camera with a confident flourish, and his performance in front of it is perhaps his best performance on the screen to date, recalling the similarly messy character at the centre of Crazy Heart. However, it’s Gaga that is the sensation here. There has always been a danger for musicians that comes with aiming for movie stardom. Being able to convince in a three-minute music video promo doesn’t necessarily translate to being able to convince in a two-hour film, as evidenced by the up and down fortunes that Madonna and David Bowie had when it came to movies, but everything here screams out that one is watching a star-making performance whenever Gaga is on-screen.
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The combination of its two leads, the tender air of Sam Elliot’s supporting performance and the confidence that comes from Cooper’s ability as a director here makes this a wonderful piece of work, especially in its first half when the film is at its very best. It loses a little traction in the second, not least when the film does at times feel more like its taking aim at the type of musician Gaga is in real life, but redemption comes from its powerful final moments, where Cooper, Gaga, Elliot and Cooper’s magical hand as a director makes the ending land in such a way that there is a guarantee of no dry eyes in the house.
It ensures a tough job ahead for the next version of the story that future generations will no doubt receive.