Rejoice! Oscar season is here! Film critic Scott Wilson reviews A Star is Born, a remake of a remake of a remake justified through its modern insight
A Star is Born – ★★★★☆
A remake of a remake of a remake, A Star is Born is now a generational commentary on our culture as much as it is a respected brand. First appearing in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in the lead roles, Judy Garland and James Mason starred in the 1954 remake, followed by Barbra Streisand and Kris Krisofferson in 1976. For 2018, our musical lovers are Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, also making his directing debut.
It isn’t insignificant that the film stars Lady Gaga and not Stefani Germanotta. If this story is to be told again then it has to fit into modernity, a time where the persona is the personal. Can people with attention – from pop stars to Instagram influencers – ever turn off when every action and every thought can be recorded?
People covertly snap Cooper’s Jackson Maine as he goes about his business, in a supermarket and at a bar. He can never not be Jackson Maine, a singer-songwriter still commanding a crowd. If a cashier wants an invasive and inappropriate photo, Jackson Maine accepts.
Rarely seen without a bottle in his hand, the constant attention and his addictions are part of the same world, even if the film never spells it out. All straggly haired and Southern drawled, Maine’s struggle is a tragically romanticised one. Good at what he does, but bad at managing the life that comes with it.
A Star is Born tells the stories of Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse and all their troubled peers. An artist’s downfall is as much a part of the process of being an artist as their acclaimed output.
It’s in a bar – where else? – he meets Gaga’s Ally, covering La Vie en rose on a night of drag. Her voice leads to a backstage meeting, which leads to a late night drink, which leads to an insistence from Maine they simply must work together. It’s all good-natured, spurred on by genuine admiration for her talent and for her as a person.
And thus a star is born, and the film’s name says everything about its melancholic optimism. As Ally’s stock rises, Maine’s addiction worsens. He is unable to stop being Jackson Maine, while Ally’s transition to stardom is solely an upward curve. What does that mean for a girl who was told the shape of her nose alone would keep her from ever making it? No prizes for guessing that Lady Gaga herself was told the same thing.
Through this modern lens, A Star is Born tells the stories of Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse and all their troubled peers. An artist’s downfall is as much a part of the process of being an artist as their acclaimed output. Maine is a victim of a machine encouraging annihilation by the hands of an audience that will smother you. On his suicide letter, Cobain wrote “it’s better to burn out than to fade away,” turning Neil Young’s lyric into a seductively deceptive bar for musicians to measure themselves against.
The highs of creativity are here too. Ally joining Maine on stage for her song Shallow, which she’d previously sang a capella to him in a car park, is utterly enchanting. By having the camera follow Gaga the whole time, the audience vicariously shares her success in that moment, not taking the perspective of the live crowd but Ally herself. We get to feel her dreams coming true after years of grafting.
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It is perfect for 2018. Enjoying the success of another is nothing new, but never have we been so able to experience it. Instagram posts, Twitter updates, Youtube vlogs all let us into the lives of people we care about, hoping the best for them. Standing on stage with Ally is the cinematic equivalent of a Snapchat from a singer – we’ve been the audience, now we’re the star.
Gaga and Cooper have the chemistry to carry this all off in spades. Gaga is already an enigma, switching between meat suits and country darling in her trademark chameleonic way. Here she is a small-town girl with world-conquering talent, without the Gaga confidence but the same scene-stealing power. Only a fool would bet against a Best Actress nomination. Cooper carries a world-weariness, with sunken but not unhappy eyes. He reaches for the surface around Ally, plagued by impulses impossible to shake. He’s determined to try and try, slurring his way through indecipherable dialogue coming from a man buried beneath the bottle in his hands.
Updated for a modern telling, A Star is Born does have a classic core. There are few surprises, given the influence of all its incarnations across nine decades. At 135 minutes, it is given ample space to go where it needs to, but could have shaved off a quarter of an hour in there somewhere.
But it does justify telling this story again. Cooper’s direction grounds it in a recognisable world, if one that’s given a Hollywood folk tale sheen. A Star is Born shines bright, and it’ll ride that shine all the way to the Oscars in February.
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