There are not many movies that weren’t already literary adaptations that can be said to have been remade three times. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one, King Kong is another (sort of), and now it looks like after eighty years A Star is Born has joined the club and is perhaps the least likely member: it can’t serve as a convenient metaphor for various political climates like Invasion and it doesn’t serve as a barometer of special effects progress like Kong but it does have the benefit of being a sort of fable woven into the entertainment industry, Hollywood’s original sin story if you will. It’s a story that shows both the positive and negative sides of celebrity, the joy of getting recognition and the fame and fortune this brings you but it also shows how that kind of attention can break someone, about how the public can be fickle and how the attention and pampering can lead to substance abuse and self-destruction.
The original 1937 A Star is Born with Janet Gaynor and Frederic March is the least flashy take on the story but it is to my mind clearly the best of the first three versions, in part because it simply had the weight of originality behind it. It was one of the first really major movies to have Hollywood take a hard look at itself in the mirror and question the glitz and glamour of the industry. The 1954 remake with Judy Garland and James Mason is to my mind rather over-rated; it changes almost nothing from the original film and adds very little except to give it a larger budget and add a bunch of not overly memorable musical sequences. The 1976 version with Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand did change things, it moved the story from the film industry to the music industry and was also the first adaptation to have to deal with more modern gender norms, but not all of its changes really worked. That movie’s biggest problem is that by 1976 the industry self-reflection of the original film was less a revelation and more of a cliché, especially in the context of the music industry. It wasn’t exactly a shocker that musical tastes changed with the times or that rock stars were sometimes prone to addiction, and on top of that the music in that movie did not age particularly well. That last movie is not particularly well remembered, which is probably a big part of why we didn’t get another remake on the usual twenty year interval and are not just getting the fourth version with Bradly Cooper and Lady Gaga which seems to actually be following the cues of that last version by being set in the music industry but is looking to do it right this time.
In broad strokes this is still very much the same A Star is Born story that David O. Selznick produced back in 1937. The aging male star this time around is Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a rock veteran that maybe isn’t at the height of his fame but is certainly still able to draw arena sized crowds to play to despite being a raging alcoholic who’s just barely managed by his much older half-brother Bobby (Sam Elliott). The young ingénue this time around goes by the name Ally (Lady Gaga) and as the movie starts she is working as a waitress while playing some gigs at various bars including a drag bar that she is invited to perform at despite being a cis female. One day Maine drunkenly stumbles into that drag bar looking for a drink and lays eyes on Ally while she’s performing a cover of “La Vie en rose” and is instantly smitten by both her and her talent. The next day he invites her to one of his concerts and surprises her by inviting her on stage to sing a composition she’d told him about the night before with him. Video of that moment goes viral and, well, you know what the title of the movie is.
The first obstacle in trying to adapt A Star is Born in 2018 is that the romance at the center of that first movie is one that’s fairly rooted in dated patterns of courtship in which younger women marry older men seemingly on the spur of the moment as a sort of business transaction. If you go back and do the math there actually isn’t as big of an age gap between the actors in the previous adaptations as you might think, but they certainly read as having a pretty big gap between them. Watching the movies you certainly would not have thought that Kris Kristofferson was only six years older than Barbra Streisand or that Frederic March was only nine years older than Janet Gaynor. By contrast Bradly Cooper being a full eleven years older than Lady Gaga is one of the wider age gaps in the history of this cinematic tradition but it certainly doesn’t feel that way. Lady Gaga actually had hit songs on the radio before Bradley Cooper had his breakout role in The Hangover so they seem to be very much of the same pop culture generation. This plays out a bit awkwardly on screen as Gaga is most definitely playing someone a lot younger than her actual age of thirty two and Cooper seems to be playing someone older than his actual forty three years both in terms of performance and musical genre.
Cooper’s place in popular music in particular is rather curious. At one point it’s mentioned that he started his career around 1994 and broke big around 2004, meaning he would largely be a creature of the late 90s and yet the music he plays doesn’t sound anything like the sound of popular music in the late 90s and early 2000s. He walks around in cowboy hats and speaks in an unnaturally deep voice, both suggesting a sort of country music milieu but the music he plays is heavy on electronic guitars and essentially boils down to a sort of Allman Brothers style Southern rock, but who playing that genre of music during that era would be a gigantic star today to the point where they would be instantly recognized walking into a bar? There were a couple of people playing music like that back then like The Black Crows or maybe even Kings of Leon but they were never really that level of mainstream. Truthfully very few rock bands of any kind were really that level of mainstream except for shitty bands like Nickleback and Maroon 5 of bands from very different milieus like Green Day. The idea of this guy having been in the Hot 100 at the same time as 50 Cent and Usher is kind laughable, the character is so clearly meant to be like someone who got big in the 70s or something that he feels a bit out of place in a film set in 2018. Of course this all may very well have been deliberate. A big part of the problem with the 1976 version was that the music in it was so tied in with the sound of the era (very Jackson Brown and Linda Ronstadt) that it dated itself very quickly, so maybe going for a bit of a “timeless” sound was more important than lining up the pop music timeline.
The Lady Gaga character makes more sense emerging in the modern pop landscape, and yeah that’s by design. I’ve always been a bit agnostic about the musical exploits of the real Lady Gaga. I certainly wasn’t immune from the catchiness of “Poker Face” or “Just Dance” but I always had a sinking suspicion that her avant-garde music videos and elaborate costumes were all a smokescreen to make what was essentially glorified Brittney Spears music seem more interesting than it really was. In the last couple of years she’s been moving away from her earlier Madonna inspired pop persona and into more of a rootsy style that would showcase her vocal abilities rather than her presentational flair and it’s been kind of a bumpy road commercially. Her role in this A Star is Born remake can easily be seen as a furtherance of that career move as a big part of the film is a sort of tug o’ war between the sort of raw vaguely country-ish music she makes with Cooper’s character and her eventual solo career where she’s playing what is arguably sellout pop music (though the film is a bit ambivalent about how bad we’re supposed to consider these tunes) which is kind of a reversal of the direction her own career has taken.
However this is supposed to fit into her wider career it is pretty clear that Lady Gaga is the right choice for the role here. She does a pretty good job of overcoming the fact that she probably is older than what the part calls for and does feel like an experienced actress rather than a pop singer who was cast after having only done a little bit of TV work. Her singing is also quite strong, possibly stronger than it’s been on a lot of the pop music that made her famous, and she manages to make the film’s songs work better than they otherwise might have. Take what is turning out to be the film’s signature song “Shallow,” which features heavily in the film’s advertising. There’s some kind of suspect songwriting in “Shallow,” it’s diving metaphor doesn’t entirely come together and its chorus consists of the two singers turning the word “shallow” into something like seven syllables to fill a bar, but you’re certainly not thinking about that given the way Gaga belts it out and certainly not in the context of the scenes where the two are together. I could say that about a lot of the music here, it’s certainly not the kind of music I would generally choose to listen to and there’s a sort of streamlined genre-less feel to a lot of it, but the movie manages to make most of them come alive in their performance and you also pick up on how the lyrics are influenced by the story in a way that real artists might obliquely reference their own lives in the writing.
Bradley Cooper also does a very good job of performing his own songs, a skill I had not necessarily expected from him. He also does a very good job of acting in the film despite having possibly been miscast by himself. He is indeed a little too young and for this part and the voice deepening he does is a little odd, but again you don’t necessarily dwell on this while you’re watching the movie. Cooper also impresses as a director and films the movie with incredible confidence for someone who hasn’t directed before and you can tell he picked up some lessons from working with David O. Russell and Clint Eastwood (who was at one point trying to direct his own version of A Star is Born with Beyonce of all people starring). He and cinematographer Matthew Libatique make the movie look great and Cooper has a clear knack for capturing shots in ways that looks appropriately iconic and gives the story a sort of bigness it might not otherwise have. The film also manages to get access to a lot of authentic music industry locations like the Grammy Awards and the Saturday Night Live set and when it wants to reflect modern pop music elements it does it well.
So, it’s a very well-acted and well directed movie with a lot of solid music and interesting insights into stardom, so I must have truly loved the movie, right? Well, not exactly. Don’t get me wrong I certainly liked the movie and admired its craft but there are things about it that bug me, most notably the fact that it’s a remake of a remake of a remake. I’m not inherently anti-remake at all, there have certainly been some great ones over a year but it does make it harder for something to really feel special when it’s the fourth of its kind, especially when it’s a character drama like this rather than King Kong or something. Watching it I had something of a feeling of an old story going through its motions: you see the courtship, you see the good years, you see the award show breakdown, you see the inevitable conclusion. It’s all done very well, probably a lot better than its predecessors even, but at the end of the day it’s not really bringing much truly new to the table except for superior execution and that just kind of means it’s never going to blow me away with any kind of true greatness or give me the kind of transcendent movie going experience. Of course that is very likely something of a “me” problem that other movie-goers who don’t have all these other versions of the movie floating around in their heads are not going to have.
**** out of Five