‘A Star is Born’ is old Hollywood in new skin
There’s a four-second Alec Baldwin cameo midway through A Star is Born — the directorial debut of triple Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper — that, aside from delighting an outspoken Baldwin lover like myself, is indicative of the prestige this film holds in the Warner Brothers canon and among well-known fetishists of classic Hollywood (Baldwin is a regular presence on the TCM network). For, in 70 years, Cooper is but the fourth director to adapt what is now recognised as an iconic cinematic brand. My grandparents had Judy and James, my parents had Barbara and Kris, and I have Bradley and Gaga. And it is affirmatively notable that Cooper recognises the monumental nature of what he’s undertaken. Bar Christopher McQuarrie on Mission: Impossible — Fallout, no director this year can be less faulted for trying as Cooper, stealing influence from previous Stars as well as some directors he’s worked with — Clint Eastwood, David O Russell — and some he’s merely observed — Ryan Murphy. Every scene is edited with a determination and clarity of intention that means, even in its spottiest points, the film feels like quite a significant release.
He has captured an air of grandeur and ‘unmissability’ typically reserved for a Star Wars or Chris Nolan blockbuster. A Star is Born is just a big gooey romance about some country-rock singers. Under Cooper’s guidance it feels like a great deal more. As the newborn star to his fizzling rock Jackson Maine — a long-haired, bearded, pill-popping Tom Petty type — Cooper has cast the inimitable Lady Gaga. Having not seen (nor, I suspect, particularly missed) her work on American Horror Story: Hotel or in Machete Kills, I was prepared to have a very muted response to 2009’s hottest pop sensation trying her hand at acting. Good god, Gaga, I’m so sorry I ever doubted you. Miss Stefani Germanotta does things in her performance you couldn’t possibly anticipate, capturing both the impishness and naivety of a young Liza Minnelli and the presence of Barbara Streisand. With all due respect to a very talented, watchable leading man, she runs tracks around Cooper here. The Ally character is a sort of reverse-deconstruction of Gaga the Singer; when Ally is upgraded to mainstream pop, her aesthetic bears little resemblance to Gaga’s own; she’s more of a Shakira/Alicia Keys type. The segue into realistically depicting modern music culture is where Star slips up, the aforementioned Alec Baldwin appearance is just the start of a poorly-realised section of the film that includes a totally implausible Grammys moment and a tedious SNL performance. This all set beside a trip to Dave Chapelle’s house that has nearly no purpose, and constant conflict between Jackson and brother Sam Elliott.
Cooper’s determination to make his character equally as interesting as Ally is ultimately to the film’s disadvantage. Gaga, top billed in the credits, is the Star on every level here. But just as the drama begins to truly drag, my man B-Coops pulls it all back together and unleashes a 2018 version of the traditional Star is Born ending that owes a good deal to La La Land and is easily the most traumatising ending of any film this year (screw your Avengers: Infinity War), despite the obviousness of what will happen to anyone who’s seen the previous Stars. Gaga gets her Oscar moment — she gets several, in fact. Whether Cooper or Warner or anyone else intended to facilitate it, the woman who dominated every entertainment news cycle at the turn of the decade has once again made herself a worthy centre of attention. Bravo.