Dir: Bradley Cooper
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Actor (Bradley Cooper), Best Actress (Lady Gaga), Best Supporting Actor (Sam Elliot), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing, Best Original Song.
The fifth version of this story committed to film, this occasion sees Lady Gaga following in the likes of Judy Garland’s footsteps as Gaga plays Ally, a star on the rise thanks to her late night accidental discovery by tragically flawed alcoholic rock star Jackson Maine, in this case played by the film’s writer and director Bradley Cooper. Let’s just begin by laying my cards on table. From start to finish, this film is utter garbage. Heading into it I had some expectation it might not be a masterpiece, after all the previous 1976 version this new incarnation is mostly based on, is itself a fairly thinly veiled attempt to shift Barbra Streisand records, but boy oh boy is this latest remake bad. I even had hopes it might fall into some sort of guilty pleasure bracket, bad and cheesy but enjoyable, but the movie is essentially a brutal chore to get through with one gut wrenchingly bad scene after another.
Here and there throughout A Star Is Born, Lady Gaga momentarily sings in a way that doesn’t make you want to run for the exits, before doing a 180 degree turn and smashing each song into submission with a great big fucking sledgehammer (incredibly Cooper is actually the more listenable of the two) . Her singing is so cringe inducing at points (especially when she starts wailing acapella in the car park early on producing a sound like she has been fatally wounded) you can’t wait for her to stop and go back to the acting bits again. That is until she starts acting again (if you can call it acting) at which point you wish the earth would just stop spinning and throw everyone on it, yourself and Lady Gaga included, out into the furthest reaches of space for all eternity, because, to paraphrase the tag line for Ridley Scott’s Alien “In space, no one can hear Lady Gaga act or scream her bloody god awful ‘songs’”. I don’t hate Lady Gaga as a musical artist, although I do have functioning ears so I am decidedly not a fan of her day job as a Madonna tribute act, but the songs in this are braindead nonsense. The smugness of the big single ‘Shallow’ she has created with (among others) Mark Ronson, is only overshadowed by the smugness of her character who goes through the motions of portraying insecurity and hesitation only to quickly come out all guns blazing without any legitimate character development.
Gaga’s Ally first hits the stage doing a disservice to an Edith Piaf number (Gaga sounds like she learnt French from reading the lyrics off the script 30 minutes beforehand) in a drag bar (the recurring characters from said drag bar feel bolted on and sadly like a transparent attempt to milk cash from the LGBTQ+ community who figure heavily in Gaga’s marketing demographic). She then falls in line with the hideous Christian-esque country rock stylings of Cooper’s Jackson Maine only to gradually transform into some bizarre third rate Cheryl Cole by the time she hits Saturday Night Live. Jackson offers her some vague criticisms of this mess but the film is unclear as to whether we are supposed to like what Ally’s musical direction has become, is this a woman showing her own agency? I suspect, although it’s far from clear, we are actually supposed to think she has been manipulated by a misogynist music industry in this ‘artistic’ direction and instead she should just go ahead and listen to and be manipulated by her abusive boyfriend. It might be clearer if we actually had some clue what Ally thought of her own music, but her opinion is so deeply unimportant to the film because the gender politics are essentially the same as the 1937 version. It’s all about Jackson Maine, and Bradley Cooper’s vanity project so he can go out and play rock star for a bit.
For Bradley Cooper, writer/ director of this debacle, I will say, at least he has had the sense to hire a decent cinematographer, who attempts to bring some gravitas to this otherwise exploitative mish mash of a film. Cooper follows the pattern of, and essentially does his best impression of Kris Kristofferson in the 1976 version, although sadly he never does anything as remotely wild such a standing in the pool of his house out of his mind on blow firing a handgun at a radio DJ who is hovering overhead in a helicopter as per the ’76 version. Adding this scene would have improved this new version immeasurably. No, really. As it is, with it’s ‘tasteful’ cinematography and it’s insistence on mumbled dialogue with improvisational acting (an attempt to mimic ’76 version) the film is as dull as a dishwater. It tries to present itself as a somewhat serious, affecting, dare I say it credible drama instead of what it should be, which is some slightly campy wild soap opera fun to shift downloads for Gaga and get Cooper a directing credit under his belt. By taking itself as seriously as it does it only highlights how incredibly half baked the entire project is, and how ludicrously bad the acting and script are. Cooper can act in the right conditions, but quickly we realise his acting here consists of mimicking Kristofferson’s hair / beard combo and voice from the ’76 version and looking downwards all the time. All. The. Time. It’s a good job he is taller than Lady Gaga or he wouldn’t have looked into her eyes once throughout the whole thing. The improv nature of the scenes (again mimicking the ’76 version) is a clear attempt to avoid the horror of Gaga woodenly reciting too many lines direct from a page. Cooper has some chops in this regard and you can at times see him clearly shepherding Gaga through partly improvised scenes. It’s clear he must have edited her performance in the cutting room within an inch of its life, but even then amateurish improv mistakes are included in scenes under the guise of naturalism such as when Gaga refers to Jackson as her boyfriend only to correct herself to say husband despite being pretty deep into the marriage by this point (this is not an isolated mistake).
Sam Elliot who let’s face it, has only been a bit part player mostly hired for his wonderful speaking voice (most famously as the narrator in the Coen’s The Big Lebowksi) is occasionally quite good, maybe this would be a worthwhile performance if his key scenes weren’t ludicrously melodramatic or marred by Cooper’s poor acting choices. It’s nice to see Dave Chappelle briefly as Jackson Maine’s random go to friend but his inclusion is tokenistic, bears no relation to the film and makes very little sense and strains under the weight of outrageously juvenile plot points. Andrew Dice Clay is a bore as your classic Italian American dad, who hangs out with a group of buddies whose key contribution to cinema is to ‘amusingly’ not understand You Tube (a company that gets name checked repeatedly).
This film is undoubtedly a self indulgence for Cooper who would have been much better off had Clint Eastwood (who was originally attached to the project) been the one to direct. It would have been just as cheesy an affair no doubt but Clint’s master-craftsmen like understanding of how to build a drama can mould anything into a worthwhile project. As it is, it’s a meandering dirge of a film that seeks to glorify what is essentially abusive relationship, without Cooper actually being able to pull the trigger on the wilder elements of the ’76 original (most notably Cooper can’t bring himself to have his character end up in bed with another woman) until the moment where Copper has revised the story to have his character ludicrously piss himself onstage at the Grammy’s. Yes. Really. It’s totally out of place in the realistic tone Cooper has attempted (I stress attempted) to create. The best bit is Gaga forgives him his demeaning, drunken, drug addled, controlling transgressions repeatedly and in the end tells him it’s not his fault, going so far as to glorify his behaviour and their relationship in the closing scenes by doing the most incredibly obvious rip off of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You copying the exact same phrasing from the Whitney Houston version in a song that eventually melds itself into R. Kelly’s I Believe I Can Fly. Please don’t misunderstand, she doesn’t sing either of those songs, it’s just a rip off of those two songs. Is this some crazy deeply hidden message about the abusive creative relationship between Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown and some sort of reference to Gaga’s association with abusive male R. Kelly? Gaga has famously recently removed her duet with Kelly Do What U Want (With My Body) from streaming services and I-Tunes, but not before announcing it ahead of time so it could rise up the charts again before removal, making it one of the most listened to / downloaded songs of the year. Sadly there is no meta element here, just a poor carbon copy of some mushy crowd pleasers to canonise Cooper’s character and tacitly endorse abusive relationships as inspirational and glorious.
Speaking of carbon copies, in the end as I have alluded to this film is a poor direct re-hash of the somewhat silly but fun 70s version, as opposed to the savvy re-working Cooper perhaps intended. Cooper has poured through the scenes making the odd change that have always served to weaken the film’s appeal, again sometimes with exceptionally half baked results. In the 70s version Streisand and Kristofferson build themselves a home on Kristofferson’s ranch that he has been hanging on to and not doing anything with, creating a haven where the two cement their relationship. In Cooper’s version this ranch appears in the story only to be immediately removed because, get this… his brother has sold the land to turn it into a wind farm because a storm washed away their father’s grave. I am not making this up, Bradley Cooper is. In the ’76 version, whilst Kristofferson is domineering in his behaviour this (reckless stuff aside) comes off as mostly selfless. His interest in pushing Streisand feels like a man who knows he is on his way out and wants to impart everything he has to her with no expectation of anything in return, partly because he has a constant death wish. Somehow in this version Cooper just comes over as manipulative (certainly to modern eyes) and even selfish, furthermore the film surrounds Gaga with men who manipulate her. Again, this might seem more obviously distasteful to audiences if the film was written to actually show how Gaga’s character felt about it all, but it isn’t because the film doesn’t care about her it cares about Cooper. She is a fetishized version of a female star, the kind that we have seen in the real music industry repeatedly. That would be OK if the film didn’t essentially endorse this model. Having said that, all of this presupposes the idea that Gaga would be able to convey this type of nuance, which quite honestly she wouldn’t be judging by the performance she has turned in here.
Critics have generally liked this movie and millions of cinemagoers around the world do and will love this movie. Perhaps you can measure it a success of sorts considering the idea of the film is a shameless attempt to alleviate money from people’s pockets whilst pretending the film is meaningful in some way in order to snatch some Oscars. The film’s success, in essence, might be that is has conned a lot of people, but don’t be fooled, this is cinema of the most insipid type. Quite honestly it’s one of the worst Oscar contenders ever seen to be in with a chance of winning Best Picture. Notorious turkeys that won Best Picture like Shakespeare In Love, Chicago and The King’s Speech all seem palatable compared to this mess. Time will tell if the Academy’s efforts to make itself ‘relevant’ have allowed itself to lower its standards quite this far.
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