A Star Is Born (2018): Romanticized Realism

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

** (out of 4)

In 1937, William Wellman (Wings, The Ox-Bow Incident) directed A Star Is Born, a film about an aspiring actress named Vicki who rises to fame with the help of an older, alcoholic movie star named Norman. Flash forward eight decades, and Bradley Cooper has just directed, produced, written, and starred in a third remake of Wellman’s work. (Proof – if The Artist and La La Land weren’t enough – that the entertainment industry just loves stories about itself.) This time around, Vicki has been replaced by Ally (Lady Gaga), a wannabe singer who works as a waitress and nightclub performer. And filling Norman’s shoes is Jackson (Cooper), a well-known country musician who’s addicted to both alcohol and drugs.

This particular iteration of A Star Is Born does have its good points. The soundtrack, for one, is a showcase of musical talent, a well-crafted, narratively pertinent blend of genres that’ll leave you wistful and invigorated in equal measure. Cooper, moreover, proves an expert manipulator of film form. In his hands, the differences between Ally and Jackson’s situations aren’t only narrative-based differences. Rather, they also manifest themselves in the cinematography, soundscape, and editing, all of which feature stark juxtapositions (e.g. movement and stillness, noise and silence) that effectively illustrate the contrasts between Ally and Jackson’s arcs.

Unfortunately, for all its virtues, Star is ultimately still undermined by a glaring contradiction in its makeup. Cooper has indicated that he wanted this film to reflect “the real reality” of fame – the actual human struggles, in other words, that celebrity both entails and masks. To that end, several elements of Star carry a distinctly “realist” quality. For instance, the cinematography largely consists of handheld long takes that closely track the characters’ movements, a raw form of camerawork that’d be right at home in a cinéma vérité documentary. Additionally, many crucial scenes – sex scenes, scenes of Jackson in rehab – conspicuously lack any kind of score or background noise. Given that Star otherwise abounds in musical numbers, the striking absence of sound in such moments speaks to Cooper’s purported commitment to authenticity, as though he explicitly wanted to avoid melodramatizing or romanticizing his characters’ actions.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

Even as it makes these concerted stylistic stabs at realism, however, the ironic (and frustrating) thing about Star is that its narrative, character profiles, and portrayal of artistic creation all prove heavily idealized. With regard to the film’s narrative, Ally is a prodigiously talented unknown who just happens to be discovered by a guy with the power to jumpstart her career. Once she starts becoming famous, moreover, she encounters next to no setbacks. She never has a major onstage breakdown, nobody ever criticizes her singing – and before she knows it, she’s won the Grammy for Best New Artist. Ally’s story, in short, is an unsubtle and extreme representation of every unrecognized artist’s wildest fantasies, a bout of wishful thinking that undercuts Cooper’s attempts to provide a “realistic” depiction of fame.

Actually, let me qualify some of the things I just said. On occasion, Ally does face obstacles en route to success. For instance, her manager (Rafi Gavron) insists on controlling aspects of her appearance, and Jackson starts to grow jealous of her popularity. Yet Cooper never indicates that these problems of hers are significant: she brushes aside her manager’s directives without much consequence, and Jackson eventually apologizes for his resentful attitude. Meanwhile, the film simultaneously places heavy emphasis on the intractability of Jackson’s particular problems, devoting large chunks of running time to depicting his alcoholism and the irreparable damage it apparently causes. By downplaying Ally’s issues and highlighting Jackson’s, in short, Cooper not only fails to turn Ally’s story into something greater than a mere rehash of Cinderella. He also imbues the film with an ever-so-slightly sexist worldview, a worldview in which men’s problems are graver and more worth our attention than women’s.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

Its problematic depiction of Ally’s career aside, Star also suffers from the fact that Ally and Jackson both come off as caricatures. Ally, on the one hand, is a textbook-worthy example of an ingénue, a talented yet congenitally insecure young woman who always needs others’ encouragement to compensate for her own self-doubt. Jackson, meanwhile, is a cross between a “wise old man” and a “troubled genius,” an all-knowing, magnanimous mentor who also has a tragic backstory that nobody (nobody!) can truly understand. As actors, to be sure, Cooper and Gaga do their best to flesh out their respective characters. But no matter how hard they try, we never learn anything about Jackson or Ally that moves us past the basic, archetypal character descriptions I just provided, and as a result, Cooper and Gaga’s performances always carry a simplistic and artificial quality.

One final problem with Star stems from its portrayal of how art is made. As depicted by Cooper, artists never have to work to be good. We never see Ally and Jackson put any effort into developing or maintaining their singing/songwriting abilities, and the songs they compose tend to be the unlabored, unmodified products of “It just fell into my head” moments of inspiration. As any actual artist will tell you – including, incidentally, Cooper and Gaga themselves – creating good art almost always involves pain, dedication, time, and substantial revisions. Yet despite his stated desire to be “realistic,” Cooper never acknowledges the challenges of the creative process, and the film ends up reinforcing the mistaken, fantastical notion that people are simply “born” to do certain things.

In the month and a half since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Star has met with near-universal acclaim, and many have cited it as a potential Oscar contender. Yet like The Artist and La La Land, the hype around Star doesn’t say much about the film’s quality per se; rather, it shows that critics have a blind spot for films that enfold themselves in references to the past. In its dreamlike depiction of Ally’s rise to stardom, after all, Star easily harks back to an era of what Manohla Dargis called “old-fashioned, big-feeling cinema.” But as mentioned, the film also wants to be “realistic,” adopting a stylistic approach that’s the very antithesis of “old-fashioned, big-feeling” melodrama. And as a result, the overall work feels incoherent, a self-contradictory pile of half-baked ideas that prove neither entertaining nor intellectually engaging. One can only hope that Cooper will put his considerable talents to better use in whatever film he makes next.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

***

A Star Is Born (2018)

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

Running Time: 135 minutes

MPAA Rating: R, “for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse.”

Produced by: Bradley Cooper, Bill Gerber, Todd Phillips, Lynette Howell Taylor

Written by: Bradley Cooper, Eric Roth, Will Fetters. Based on William Weldman’s 1937 film of the same name.

Directed by: Bradley Cooper