A STAR IS BORN, from director Bradley Cooper, is a very good adaptation of the trailer that played before every single movie I saw in a theater for the last three months. I saw that trailer so many times I would try to act it out and could sing the two songs (one with correct lyrics, even). I would get just those song fragments stuck in my head for days. So it’s exciting to discover that they have second verses.
I don’t know if it’s as good as an adaptation of the 1937 film starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, or the 1954 one starring Judy Garland and James Mason, or the 1976 one starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, or the 1998 made-for-cable one starring Brandy and Casper Van Dien, because I haven’t seen any of them and made up the last one. I have to assume it’s closest to the ’76 because actor Bradley Cooper (THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN) definitely seems to be channeling Kristofferson’s rugged country poet vibe. I even contemplated whether or not he should be allowed to play Whistler if they ever do a new BLADE. Then I realized that really the voice he’s doing is Sam Elliott, so I was delighted when the actual Sam Elliott (ROAD HOUSE) showed up, playing his older brother/road manager. I wondered if that was awkward between the two actors, and then I found a Good Morning America interview where Elliott says Cooper (THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN) warned him “this is gonna be a little weird” before playing him a tape of the voice he was working on. “And it was a little weird.”
What if Elliott hadn’t been available? If they ended up casting, like, Don Johnson or Willem Dafoe or somebody, would they have to imitate Sam Elliott too?
More importantly, did Cooper (THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN) drop the voice while directing? I doubt he did. I bet he discussed camera angles with cinematographer Matthew Libatique (PI, VENOM) in that voice. I bet it was real hard to turn off when he went home, too. And when the movie was done. I bet he’s still using it as we speak. For years it will pop up by accent when he says certain phrases or when he drinks gin.
Most unexpected person to pop up in the movie: Eddie Griffin (URBAN JUSTICE) in a cameo. If I hadn’t seen the trailer: Dave Chappelle (CON AIR).
Cooper (THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN) plays Jackson Maine, veteran rock star without an obvious model as far as I can tell. Kind of country, complete with hat, but also a rockin Eddie Vedder type. He’s on a giant outdoor stadium/constantly photographed in public/full time personal limo driver/fly girlfriend in on a private jet level of success, and also he’s unhappy and drinks too much and takes pills.
He meets the star that is born kinda randomly. He’s in town and wants a drink, has his driver (Greg Grunberg, who I have read was on a show called “Felicity,” not sure if it’s a streaming thing or TV or what) stop at the first bar he spots. If he was a homophobe none of this would’ve happened, because he would’ve left when he realized it was a drag bar. Instead he sees one of the club’s former servers turned bio-queen, Ally (Lady Gaga, MACHETE KILLS) sing “Ma Vie en Rose,” and he’s blown away.
(META NOTE: Cooper wasn’t familiar with Gaga, but saw her sing that same song at a charity event, had a similar reaction, and was hellbent to get her in the movie)
Ally has another shitty job and then goes home and feeds her dad (Andrew Dice Clay, THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE) and the other drivers in his limo business. She’s accepted that this is her life – music industry people have told her her nose is incompatible with stardom – and at first resists even hanging around Mr. Rock Star.
The heart of the movie is this long stretch of craziness where she works, meets Jackson, gets invited to fly out to his next show, goes back to work, decides to quit and take up the offer, ends up unexpectedly singing on stage with him, and falling into fame and love at the same time. A bunch of momentous can’t-believe-this-is-happening events with some mundane normal life in between, and no time for sleep.
If you’re as familiar with that trailer as me you know that she comes to watch his show and he puts her on the spot to perform the unfinished song she sang for him in a drugstore parking lot the night before. In my opinion Gaga is really fuckin good in this movie, and I keep thinking about how convincingly she captures Ally’s stomach-crushing fear, cowering in the back as he starts the song without her, then steeling herself to bite the bullet and go out there. Like making herself jump out of a plane. And even as she’s clearly nailing it she keeps looking like she can’t believe this is happening and might freak out. Here is Gaga, veteran stadium performer, making me believe she’s brave to sing in front of a crowd, while the dude that played Face in the movie of THE A-TEAM stands back giving her his humble support.
It’s an old fashioned, arguably dated idea of talent and getting discovered and becoming famous and all that shit, but it’s got a ROCKY or 8 MILE kind of underdog exhilaration to it. This movie is corny as shit and I was on board the whole time.
I’m not someone who listens to Lady Gaga, though I’ve noticed her seeming to be a more gifted musician than many superstars of her era, and I respect her as a pop weirdo with crazy costumes and stuff, especially since she showed up at the MTV Awards or something with Kermit the Frog as her date. But as Ally I really fell for her, a cool working class girl, a good singer, a fun person. I understood why she fell for this guy, noticed her qualms about his drinking, worried about her giving in to him too much as he transparently became jealous of her success separate of him, forgave her when she trusted a douchey manager (Rafi Gavron, THE LAND) and when her hit single was wack. I was moved by her nurturing and sad that it was required of her. I think Ally is hot and also I believe that people didn’t like her nose. And I like the intimacy of Jackson caressing it and professing his love of it. They seem so genuinely into each other that it’s seductive. I fell for this love story even as their relationship seems doomed to failure.
Having since seen a half hour interview about the movie with Gaga on Stephen Colbert, I think it would be hard to dismiss her natural performance with the usual “oh, she’s just playing herself” criticisms. I could barely recognize her as the person from the movie in the way she carries herself or in the makeup she prefers to wear. Ally’s resistance to artificiality (feeling phony if she changes her hair color or wears fancy clothes) is the extreme opposite of Gaga, who seems to only feel comfortable when transformed into a larger than life character.
As far as fictional hit songs go, these are impressive. Gaga and Cooper wrote most of them, often collaborating with Willie Nelson’s son Lukas Nelson. (That reminds me, when Elliott’s character says he’s on tour with Willie, is he talking about Willie Nelson, or Will Smith?) Diane Warren and Mark Ronson also helped out. My favorite one was written by Jason Isbell, who I looked up in he was in that band Drive-By Truckers. That’s a thing I have heard of.
It helps that they perform the songs live, apparently at Gaga’s insistence, because she hates to see lip synching in movies. They had to play in character in front of real crowds, including Coachella. Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real play as Jackson’s band. I have to admit to genuinely liking the two most prominent songs, “Maybe It’s Time” and “Shallow.” And they do a good job of re-using them enough to show they’re signature songs while also having a bunch of others to play at their shows.
Apparently when Cooper went to Gaga’s house to convince her to do the movie he had her sing Creedence’s “Midnight Special” with him and totally won her over with his voice, even though she didn’t know the song and had to find the sheet music online to play it. This tells me two things:
1) Gaga has not seen TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE recently
2) “Midnight Special” must’ve been his go-to karaoke jam for years
The original A STAR IS BORN, I’ve read, has the star winning an Oscar. In this version Ally wins the Grammy for Best New Artist. So we can assume she’ll be a vital artist for many years to come, like Evanescence or Arrested Development.
Okay, to be fair, I like Arrested Development, and there have been plenty of more long-lasting artists who have won it. (Or at least their music has lasted – like Lauryn Hill’s or Amy Winehouse’s.) But I think it was smart to have her winning that specific award, because it’s a way to have her at the top of her profession without her legacy being guaranteed if she doesn’t follow through with Jackson’s advice to be “honest” in her music.
Best New Artist Grammy Trivia #1: When Lady Gaga was considered ineligible for the award in 2010 for having had a single nominated for best dance recording in 2008 it was so controversial they had to change the rules the next year.
Best New Artist Grammy Trivia #2: the next year’s winner, Esperanza Spalding, was Clint Eastwood’s choice to star in the movie after Beyonce dropped out.
You may or may not know that Cooper (THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN) is Clint’s directing padawan. He had turned down co-starring with Beyonce for Clint’s version, thinking he wasn’t old enough. It got delayed due to Beyonce’s pregnancy, and then she dropped out. Then he did AMERICAN SNIPER with Clint, and was so hands-on as a co-producer that there were rumors he was ghost-directing for the aging icon. (Clint has directed three more movies since, so fuck your rumors). By that time Cooper (THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN) had some wear and tear on his face and decided he was ready to do A STAR IS BORN, but Clint was over it, so director Bradley Cooper was born.
I’m not sure how much Clint influenced his directing, but they do share a classical, straight forward simplicity. It’s more about these two actors, their chemistry and their music than anything else. And it’s the little touches that make it rise above the formula it glories in. There’s a big moment where Jackson makes an emotional confession to his brother, and it’s a line that you can easily imagine in everything from a powerhouse Oscar clip to a generic TV melodrama. But the inarticulate way he brings up the topic and stumbles around it before he can blurt out what he wants to say gives it an authenticity that completely absorbs any screenwriter-trying-to-spell-it-out turbulence.
The script by Eric Roth (THE POSTMAN) and Cooper (actor, THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN) & Will Fetters (THE LUCKY ONE) gives a very gentle elbow to romantic fantasies of the pure and damaged artist. Jackson is laid back and confident in his authenticity, and passes his wise lessons about musical honesty to Ally, but as soon as he realizes she doesn’t need him for her career anymore he starts acting like a baby. Ironically she does still need him as a husband and he’s unable to give that to her. We can see the glamour of the Hard Drinking Artist Who Had a Tough Life and Expresses It Through His Art. We can also see that inspiring her to write very emotional songs is a poor substitute for being around to enjoy life with her.
These human failings don’t make his fate any less moving. During his (SPOILER) death scene there’s an extra little touch to kick your heart in the balls (SPOILER: the fuckin dog waiting faithfully outside the garage!). And the finale uses another little trick, jumping back to a moment that was skipped over before, to powerful effect. Hats off to the screenwriters or to editor Jay Cassidy (FRIGHT NIGHT PART II, BRAINSCAN, BALLISTIC: ECKS VS. SEVER) or whoever came up with that.
I liked this movie more than I can probly justify. I have a hunch it will get some Oscar nominations and earn widespread resentment as a symbol for vanilla mainstream crap. Some will accuse me of just trying to hype it up in hopes its success will inspire a theatrical re-release and critical re-evaluation of THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN. And I mean yes. But still.
I liked it. God damn it I liked A STAR IS BORN.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.