By Randy Freedman
A Star is Born: The Return Of The Hollywood Musical
Whatis the definition of a big Hollywood motion picture musical in 2018?
That is one of the questions that first time director and producer Bradley Cooper and co-producer Lucas Nelson of A Star Is Bornhave attempted to answer with the current and fourth film to share that name. This version ofA Star Is Born is for people who never saw a previous version, or those
people who love the previous versions, but thought that the property has become moth-eaten and old-fashioned. This is A Star Is Born that takes the characters seriously, in their passions and pathologies, their addictions and ambitions. And in a time where the excellent and challenging La La Landis a big time hit as a modern musical, this is an exciting reminder of what a more traditional member of the genre can do. What it should do. It was a huge surprise, at least to me, that this new version packs such a wallop.
Like the western, the musical is a genre that is usually written off as dead or dying, yet whenever Hollywood bothers to make and market a “BIG” one they end up with a box office hit. Okay, fine, soA Star Is Born isn’t a traditional musical, as the film’s songs are performed in a conventional “singing on stage” or “singing in a recording booth” fashion, as opposed to having folks walking down the street burst out into song. It’s absolutely a musical in the sense that its story and its character arcs are told through music, original music no less, and that the tunes are a big part of the film’s popular appeal.
You may know the story of A Star Is Born, but you don’t know this story, at least not the way that screenwriters Eric Roth, Will Fetters and Cooper are telling it. Jackson Maine (Cooper) is a roots-rock icon whose personal life is falling apart from too many pills, too much booze, and too troubled a relationship with his brother and minder Bobby (Sam Elliott). The fact that Cooper’s speaking voice as Jackson seems to impersonate Elliott’s is distracting at first and takes some getting used to.
After a gig, Jackson heads to literally the first bar he can find, which happens to be a drag joint. He’s blown away by Ally (Lady Gaga), the one performer in the club who doesn’t lip-sync, belting out a heartfelt “La vie en rose” that thankfully sounds a lot closer to Edith Piaf than Grace Jones. The two get to know each other on a bar-crawl: She punches out a cop who violates Jackson’s personal space, and he takes her to an all-night grocery store to get frozen peas for her swollen knuckles. She regales him in the parking lot with a song she’s working on. The next night, after reconciling herself with his celebrity, and accepting his generosity, she finds herself on stage with Jackson. He has worked her fragment into a full song. Bang! Zoom! A star is born! But her climb is mirrored by Jackson’s descent, and not even her abiding, clear-eyed, non-enabling love is going to be enough to save him from his own abyss.
Over the years, A Star Is Born has been a Hollywood story (in the 1937 version starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March), a mostly traditional Hollywood musical (1954, Judy Garland and James Mason), and a rock musical (1976, Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson). This new version runs closest to the plot of the 1976 remake, but there are bits of the others scattered in as well. When Ally talks about being rejected because of her nose, that’s not just a Streisand shout-out. Garland’s character is also told by the studio makeup men that [her] "nose is all wrong."
Many movie critics consider the 1954 version from director George Cukor as the best ( at least until now), and a veritable high point of old school Hollywood filmmaking over all. Garland, begins as a modestly successful vocalist with a popular band, earning her living and the respect of her colleagues by singing. Her life on the road has been turbulent, and she dreams of stardom with a No. 1 record on the charts. Garland plays her role as a skilled performer who’s accustomed to crowds, and knows how to handle both herself and James Mason, her drunk movie star friend. The problem is that her vision for herself in the future is limited to what she’s already doing. Mason sees her differently. He sees that she is not just a singer, but an engaging original personality, who could be a star. The movie is filled with Garland’s production numbers, that make clear that Garland's character is capable of more than she has been doing with her band. Once "in the movies" she gets to wear costumes, play roles, and, in the process, tap into emotion that, previously, she had displayed only to an audience of her colleagues in private jam sessions. They make clear Garland's potential and the star qualities she could not display with her band.
Cukor’s direction is energetic and eruptive, full of urgent close-ups and tense long takes that are uniquely attuned to both of his lead actors’ ferocity. Mason is as suave as he is tormented, and Garland gives one of her most freely expressive and explosive performances. Both actors burst onto the screen in moments of agonizingly observational intimacy. This version is done in a different style and is intended for a different audience than the 2018 version, but very worth our time watching.
Over the course of his film, Cooper goes out of his way to update, change or at least reconsider what we expect as the plot beats of the story. Jackson does embarrass Ally at an awards ceremony, but not in the exact way his predecessors do. We don’t have to see an on-the-decline Jackson screw up a corporate gig; the lead-in to the scene tells us exactly what’s going to happen, and we can fill in the rest ourselves. Kudos to the sound designers as well; A Star Is Bornis that rare film to acknowledge that a concert can sound different to the people onstage than it does to the ones in the audience.
The film’s rightful concentration on its central couple, by necessity, takes the overall focus of the audience away from its ensemble. But despite this fact, there were some stand out supporting performances. Like the contribution of Sam Elliott as Jack’s much older brother Bobby, himself a talented musician who’s given up his dreams to manage the career of his sibling and is running out of patience with Jack’s out-of-control drinking. It’s a multi-faceted role that seems destined to bring the gravel-voiced Elliott his first Oscar nomination.
Casting directors Lindsay Graham and Mary Vernieu grace the screen with an interesting mix of scene-stealers like Greg Grunberg, (a surprisingly undersstated) Andrew Dice Clay, and Willam Belli, who has a great time flirting with Cooper in the drag-bar sequence
A Star Is Born never shies away from big emotions or stirring romance, mixing old-Hollywood sweep with modern-day sophistication. Between Bradley Cooper (as a filmmaker) and Lady Gaga (as a big-screen lead), the title applies to both of them. As a musical, the songs, written by Gaga, Cooper, Lukas Nelson, Jason Aldean and Mark Ronson, are all terrific and make a helluva soundtrack album. Combine that with the heartbreak of its conclusion , and you have one soaring and searing piece of movie entertainment. Cooper has made a jaggedly tender love story, that is never over-the-top. An operatic movie that sometimes dares to be quiet and reflective. It will be long remembered.
Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist, and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.