Thursday, October 11, 2018

Born This Way: Bradley Cooper's "A Star is Born" (2018)

Every few decades, one remake emerges that defines the zeitgeist in some meaningful way. While there's only four versions of A Star is Born out there currently, they all have left a stamp on Hollywood and the music industries with scathing tales of fame, indulgence, and the power of creativity. Over the course of this week, Born This Way will be looking at the films, released between 1937 and 2018, and analyzing what makes each one special along with what they do right, what could be improved, and just a general celebration of all things glitz and glamour. You might want to take another look at this column, because it's something as timeless as film itself. Dive in and enjoy Hollywood's favorite franchise, which has earned 17 Oscar nominations, 2 wins, and an Honorary Award. There's few films like these, so catch them before they fade away.


Release Date: October 5, 2018

Directed By: Bradley Cooper
Written By: Eric Roth & Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters (Screenplay), Moss Hart (Based on 1954 screenplay), John Gregory Dunne & Joan Didion & Frank Pierson (Based on 1976 screenplay), William A. Wellman & Robert Caron (Based on Story)
Starring: Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91% (see reviews here)

*Special Notes:
-Information regarding awards achievements is currently unavailable, as it is a recent release and hasn't met the date for the qualifying year's Oscars.
-A Star is Born (2018) is a recent release and is subject to make more than the 1976 version's $80 million total box office gross. However, at time of publication, the film has grossed $65 internationally after one weekend meaning that it's likely to surpass the film fairly quick.


There's a good chance that if the modern generation has any opinions of A Star is Born prior to 2018, it was one of a slight ridicule. The 1976 version may have been a radical update with interesting results, but it may have also created the notion that it was a self-indulgent franchise, and that not just anyone should get the rights to remake it. That's likely why it took 42 years to get the next version out, which came from an unlikely place: Bradley Cooper, who was a first time director and actor who couldn't sing professionally. Considering the franchise's emphasis on musicians performing their own material, it already seemed audacious that Cooper would defy odds and actually be a good first-time musician. There was less concern over Lady Gaga, who stood a chance of being one of the most charismatic leads in the franchise's history - that is if she could escape her previous image of elusive pop star and actress in Robert Rodriguez-produced schlock. It was a gamble, but apparently this was the one of the many tested versions that held any impact on the studios to get the green light.

It's too early to suggest that the film is going to be a phenomenon that reinvigorates the franchise. It hasn't even been a full week since its public release. However, the early buzz has been incredible and suggested a lot about the film's potential at being the most successful A Star is Born ever both critically and financially. With all of that said, the praise for Cooper and Gaga is predominantly strong and the amount of praise for the soundtrack at least suggests that the film has some legs beyond opening weekend. It helps that Gaga's character at points feels autobiographical, playing a performer who sung in drag bars and dealing with public image, and that there's yet another update that takes what has changed since 1976 and make it more audience friendly. If the film does as well as the early success has suggested, then this may be the first serious contender for "Best A Star is Born" since 1954, which is over 60 years. What does the film have to say about the modern age? Quite a bit. Is it different enough from the previous versions? Depends on what you're looking for. It's got plenty going for it, though it also may be a bit too familiar at points.

"A Star...
Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper)

From the look of things, Jackson Maine is one of the premiere stars in country music at the moment. He sells out stadiums with his brand of music, which is raw and honest in ways that capture an audience's interest. He is an artist who does his best to be authentic, believing more in truth than flashy pop songs. However, he's also a man who is suffering from demons that include drug addiction and potential onset tinnitus. He has his brother Bobby (Sam Elliott) there to help him out, until egos get in the way and he's left to deal with Ally, the up and coming singer who may or may not sacrifice image to be more successful. Still, he does his best to make things work despite being a drunken mess. Unfortunately, it all becomes too much for him and he hangs himself in order to save Ally's career image, which may or may not be for the best.

 ... is Born"
Ally (Lady Gaga)

In a lot of ways, Ally embodies Lady Gaga the way that Esther Blodgett did Judy Garland in the 1954 version. There's so many subtle details about her career there that make the role all the more fascinating. She starts off as a frustrated waiter at a drag bar before being discovered by Jackson while performing there. When they meet up, he catapults her to viral video fame with a performance that makes her into a pop star sensation. The only issue is that she sacrifices some of her authenticity in order to appeal to a wider audience, performing pop smashes on Saturday Night Live and earning Grammy's for music that Jackson deems inappropriate. Still, she is a performer who believes in her craft, and it shines through in everything that she does, no matter how much she has to mold into something greater. She evolves in interesting ways, making her one of the more versatile leads of the four lead actresses.

What This One Did Right

All things considered, casting Lady Gaga in the lead is the real lynch pin on why this film is bound to be among the best adaptations of the story. She brings a raw honesty to the whole experience that at times pulls from her own life and struggles with being that weird pop star. Here she gives a performance that is everything that Garland and Barbra Streisand ('76) were trying to achieve. It's a breakthrough role that establishes her as a serious actress while also maybe being the comeback she needed - not that she went anywhere, but as a screen actress she wasn't exactly getting love. There's a good chance that in the long run, Gaga will be what is looked back upon as the film's greatest success. She reinvents the role in ways that work for a 21st century take.

Another thing that makes the film particularly effective is that there's plenty of depth to Jackson and the supporting cast. To give Jackson more of a complicated back story at least makes his struggles within the film more than masculine insecurity, which is what it felt like early on between the 1937 and 1954 versions. Adding in a brother as well in Bobby also makes for a great dynamic that makes the third act far more powerful. As mentioned, even the supporting cast who don't factor into the plot as much have a lot more power to this version than previous versions, making the world feel more lived in. Everything about the film feels geared to please audiences in classic Hollywood ways, albeit with more profanity and nudity than audiences remember. It's also one of the strongest, densest soundtracks of the ground, and for the most part it works very well.

A Few Issues

As much as Bradley Cooper does right behind the scenes at creating a dynamic crowd pleaser, it's a bit difficult to suggest that he was right for the lead role. Maybe it was an act of ego that Cooper needed to do it all, but it's telling that he had to learn to sing for this role (and he's fine). However, there's something odd about him getting the role because there's little here that's authentic in the way that his character espouses. He does a good job at the dramatic parts, but there's nothing there in the performances that makes him seem more exceptional than maybe paying tribute to the 1976 version by casting two musician-actors in the lead. Lady Gaga outshines him at every turn, and it's a shame that there wasn't another actor in the lead who could have given the performance a bit more of an uncanny quality that the 1976 version had.

For what it's worth, the film also fails to be fully removed from its origins of 1937. While they have changed the character names yet again, the choice to commit suicide is once again a big factor in the story. It also doesn't help that the story centers around a man who is desperate to be loved - which isn't as popular in the media right now. He may be talented and sympathetic, but he's still the same insecure guy who needs approval. While it's not a terrible detriment given the source material, it keeps the film from feeling like an evenly set story. Had Cooper had a more humble ending, such as recovery, then maybe it would be a totally revolutionary take on the character. Instead, it's more of the same in ways that reflect just how dated the story can be in the wrong ways. Also, "Why Did You Do That To Me" is not a good song, regardless of what Dianne Warren says on Twitter.

Best Moment

To Bradley Cooper's credit as a director, he created the most perfect moment of a star being born before our eyes. After Jackson hears Ally perform in a grocery store parking lot, he gyps her into coming out to a massive show. Having given up on her previous career as a waitress, she goes and finds Jackson singing what is now known as "Shallow." It's a nerve-racking moment. Will she do it? Then as she does, the question is whether she will own the song, starting off quiet and a bit sheepish. However, the build to her bridge in the song is one of those moments of movie magic that just captures the viewer and makes you see Ally breaking through. It's breathtaking to witness in context, and the best part is that it is born not with a line of dialogue, but a melody being sung, almost like it's forming before our eyes. It has a power that carries the back half of the song into the stratosphere. Many great songs have been performed in A Star is Born movies, but this is the first that feels like it actually captured a star being born in ways that were transparently effective.

Connections and Similarities

As the most recent installment, what's interesting is how much of the 2018 version is owed to all three versions. There is of course the original story, but the film also has all of the references that have come to be expected, such as "I just want to have another look at you" and how image and artist's real life careers are themes throughout the entire film. According to Cooper, there's a lot of similarities in there to the 1954 version, including a reference to Garland's most popular song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," which plays as the title card appears. However, it would be difficult to not make a lot of obvious suggestions that the 2018 version is in a lot of ways a remake and update of the 1976 version especially in ways that aren't immediately obvious.

The story goes that Cooper wanted to make his directorial debut and had this story about a musician. While it would become A Star is Born, the early version was not that - and thus is similar to the 1976 version's original draft not being deeply connected to the previous versions. There's also the reality that Cooper sought assistance from Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, the leads of the 1976 version, for help getting approval of the characters. Even the concert scenes, already very similar, were performed in between sets by Kristofferson. There is of course the fact that it's another story about two musicians trying to make it, updated with more sexuality and profanity than even the 1976 version allowed. While the film does plenty to separate itself, it feels a lot like a more streamlined and focused version of the 1976 version in ways that are effective. It's hard to imagine the film not paying tribute to such iconic scenes as the bathtub sequence, and Cooper makes sure to put all of those details in there. 


As mentioned, there's a lot here that's almost a predominant remake of the 1976 remake. However, this is the only film of the series to feature the male lead committed suicide by hanging, as well as dealing seriously with alcohol recovery. It's very much a film that feels like it's about 2018 musicians, featuring familiar signifiers and awards shows that are more relevant to the modern era. This film also features more profanity by a wide margin than any version before, and includes full frontal nudity in another moment. However, what makes the film stand out more is that it has a memorable supporting cast, which includes a family for each character that is rich with personalities and performances that are worthy of their own side stories. Cooper populates the film with so many new details that it comes across as something rich and new.

Closing Remarks

As I have mentioned in a prior review, I really did enjoy this particular take on A Star is Born and feel like it's a great update of a familiar story. If anything, it proves how vital the story as a whole remains. I still am convinced that this film's biggest triumph is Lady Gaga, who gives a career-defining performance. Who knows. This could help elevate her to the status that was denied to the previous A Star is Born leads. No actress has won an Oscar for the series yet, so there's a good chance that she can fix that. It's full of heart and emotion that works at getting the audience involved in all sorts of meaningful ways. If nothing else, this is the best soundtrack of the group if you look cumulatively. I still love the music for the 1954 version more, but it's also because my attachment to Garland is far stronger than Gaga. Still, this feels like it's going to be a big deal in the long run, which is a revelation.

However, I still am not convinced that the Bradley Cooper love is fully deserved. As an actor, he does a good job at embodying the role, but it really does feel like hubris that he had to do the lead role, and I don't know if it always works. Having a more traditional singer could've provided something cathartic to the whole experience. Given what is there, Cooper has created a film that is at very least able to please audiences and creates a film that's worth going to the movies for. If anything, he deserves credit for making A Star is Born feel vital again. Considering that the 1976 version looms over unfavorably like a black cloud, it's nice to know that new audiences won't have the negative connotation that audiences have had for 42 years with this franchise. If anything, that is worthy of giving some celebration for a film that works at being a great studio film in a time when those don't seem common. 

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