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New Release Review - A STAR IS BORN

a star is born review
A rock star's alcoholism threatens his relationship with the singer he helped turn into a star.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Bradley Cooper

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, Anthony Ramos, Andrew Dice Clay

a star is born poster


In a moment of "three chords and the truth" muso philosophising, a character in A Star is Born talks about how every piece of music follows the same formula of 12 notes to every octave. How you distinguish yourself as an artist, he claims, is how you make those 12 notes your own. It's an apt analogy for Bradley Cooper's directorial debut, which is of course a remake of the 1976 remake of the 1954 remake of the 1937 drama. Cooper fails to make those 12 notes his own, however, delivering a generic backstage drama with a superficial addiction plotline.

It's a shame, as for much of its first half, Cooper's film had me thoroughly charmed with a sweet music industry romance that recalls vintage Cameron Crowe in its old-fashioned, unashamed sentimentality.

a star is born review

Cooper casts himself as Jackson Maine, a country rock singer-songwriter who gets recognised everywhere he goes despite this being 2018 and him being a country rock singer-songwriter. Desperate for a late pint after a gig, Jackson stops off at a drag bar, where he is immediately entranced by Ally (Lady Gaga), the young singer who takes the stage and belts out a rousing cover of 'La Vie en Rose'.

These early scenes, in which Jackson and Ally fall hard for each other, boast such a palpable chemistry between Cooper and Gaga that you may find yourself pondering whether the film's production might have featured a backstage romance of its own. This opening section culminates in Ally seizing her chance when Jackson invites her onstage to perform a song she composed herself, and we're immediately reminded why Gaga is one of the real world's biggest stars.

When Ally fulfils the prophecy of the title, the film takes us down two separate paths. One follows Ally as she is taken under the wing of Rez (Rafi Gavron), a British producer who vows to make her an international household name. This involves Ally leaving behind her more subdued, jazz-inflected style and becoming, well, becoming Lady Gaga, a full-blown, modern pop diva. Meanwhile, racked with jealousy as Ally's career transcends his own, Jackson seeks comfort in alcohol and drugs.

a star is born review

This keeps Cooper and Gaga separated for most of the film's second half, denying us the chemistry that makes the early segments so successful, and neither of their separate plotlines offer enough nuance or originality to make them worth following. The film's view of addiction is as superficial as that found in any 1970s 'After School Special', with Cooper boasting the sort of ripped torso the healthiest of athletes would be jealous of. Equally, Ally's 'perils of stardom' plotline has no more depth than that found in the notorious 2001 Mariah Carey vehicle Glitter.

The charming couple we fall for in the film's opening act give way to a pair of narcissists we increasingly struggle to empathise or engage with. Both protagonists have their beating hearts taken out, becoming cardboard stereotypes to fit more neatly into the tired tale Cooper and his screenwriters have opted to focus on. Gradually, we begin to feel like we're watching the wedding video of a somewhat obnoxious couple we don't really know or care for. It's left to brief supporting cameos by Sam Elliott and Dave Chappelle to add some much needed warmth and humanity.

As a director, Cooper offers a mixed bag. The film's concert sequences might be the most immersive since Scorsese's The Last Waltz, but off the stage, Cooper's film suffers heavily from his lack of experience in telling a story with pictures. Everything we need to know as an audience is spelled out in dialogue, and if characters didn't literally tell us what they were thinking, feeling or experiencing at any given time, we'd be clueless. There's a moment where Jackson makes a rare appearance in a state of sobriety, but we only learn he's stopped drinking because Ally tells us she doesn't smell any booze off his breath, Cooper breaking one of the golden rules of filmmaking by having a character verbally express a sense that the screen can't communicate to relay a vital character development. This inability to communicate character psychology dogs Ally's plotline too, as we never can tell whether we're supposed to think she's 'selling out' or simply embracing her own style until, yes, a character tells us how we should think.

a star is born review

Thanks largely to the preponderance of straight white male critics, music journalism has long been guilty of a pro-rock, anti-pop bias, which reached its shameful nadir on the night of July 12th, 1979, when thousands of soulless assholes gathered at Chicago's Comiskey Park to set alight hundreds of disco records. It's a mindset that Cooper continues with his debut. It may be the story of two distinct singers, but it's clear which side of the rock/pop argument the director falls on. Jackson's rock performances are filmed with a joyous fervour, the camera up on stage and in the performers' faces, while Ally's pop turns are shot from a disengaged distance, often through Jackson's judgemental POV, much like how Bob Fosse communicated the disparity between the stand up gigs at the beginning and end of his comic biopic Lenny.

Much of the drama of the film's latter portion revolves around Ally being forced to choose between her own stardom and her love for Jackson, whose addiction threatens to derail the former. But isn't this film set in the music industry, where addiction issues and outrageous behaviour are more common than not? For the sake of cheap drama, A Star is Born treats its female lead like she's running for the presidency rather than eking out a career in rock 'n roll; it's more Bill and Hillary than Sid and Nancy.

A Star is Born is in UK/ROI cinemas October 3rd.



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