Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, February 6, 2019

OSCARS 2019: A Star is Born (2018)

“A Star is Born” is a story that has a grip on Hollywood. I suppose the tale of a fading star dovetailing with a rising one will always be relevant. Originally made in 1937 as a straight-ahead drama, starring Fredric March and Janet Gaylor, it would be more famously remade as a musical in 1954, starring Judy Garland and James Mason. This version would be likewise eclipsed by another remake in 1976, with Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. With a new version of this story rolling around about every twenty years, we were actually well overdue for another remake when the latest “A Star is Born” was released last year. Initially conceived with Clint Eastwood as director and Beyonce as star, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga would be the driving force behind this new variation. Another thing each version of “A Star is Born” has in common is that each one has been nominated for several Academy Awards, a tradition 2018's riff has also continued. 

But you know what I'm a little embarrassed to admit? I've never actually seen any prior version of “A Star is Born,” so I can't say how closely this take hews to any of the prior ones. (From reading the various articles, this one seems to hit many of the same beats.) So here's the general idea. Jackson Maine is a popular country/western musician, whose growing hearing problems and dependency on drugs and alcohol is destroying his career. During a chance stop at a drag bar, he discovers Ally. Blown away by her talent, he invites her to a concert the next day, eventually dragging her on-stage to sing with him. The performance becomes a viral hit and Ally is a pop star overnight. She also falls in love with Jack, the two marrying. As Ally's career soars, Jack is increasingly consumed by his own demons.

To be totally honest, I didn't expect to like “A Star is Born.” A romantic drama set in the world of country/western music didn't sound very appealing to me. After seeing that meme a hundred times, I expected the film to be pretty corny. Yet the romance at the center of “A Star is Born” is surprisingly effective. Jackson seems utterly in awe of Ally's talent and personality. The way he brings her out of her shell, making her a star, is portrayed as a sincere act of love. “A Star is Born” does not lean too hard on that whole “selling out by making pop music” dynamic, instead portraying this as an example of Jackson's jealousy and instability. Equally impressive, the romance is depicted in such a non-judgmental fashion. Jackson's addiction never becomes a pointless source of melodrama, instead being predicted as a disease he can't escape. Similarly, the two rarely argue in a petty or ridiculous fashion. “A Star is Born” is really fairly balanced, an empathetic film that doesn't misjudge or treat its characters unfairly.

The film also successfully sells me on two performers I didn't think I was fans of. Bradley Cooper brings a sweaty realism to Jackson. He's someone weighed down by his mistakes and the expectations placed on him, using drugs and alcohol to escape his self-imposed pressure. This has become a prison of his own making and Cooper largely conveys that with conflicted looks and a sweaty physicality. Lady Gaga, strip of all her make-up and outrageous costumes, looks exactly like a normal person. That everywoman quality is well used in the part of someone plucked from obscurity to stardom. The two have a sweet and natural chemistry together, which is most apparent in the sequence where Cooper proposes with an improvised wedding ring.

The supporting cast is also excellent. Sam Elliot gives a surprisingly raw performance as Jackson's older brother. His caregiver for many years, Elliot's Bobby Maine is officially fed up with his brother's drunken shenanigans. Yet his frustration and anger stems from a place of love. It's nice to see Elliot truly playing a fleshed out character, after seeing him for so many years in indistinct mentor roles or as folksy cowboys. Andrew Dice Clay, of all people, appears as Gaga's father. Amazingly, Clay is pretty good too, showing a fatherly concern without overdoing it. Dave Chapelle also has a similarly low-key appearance, bringing a common humanity to the role of one of Jackson's friends.

As a musicals, I kept my expectations for “A Star is Born” low, as the songs I heard weren't really my style. Yet the numbers play a lot better in context. Even break-away pop hit “Shallow” becomes surprisingly stirring when placed within the film, as its the moment when Ally really gets to prove herself. Cooper's singing voice is surprisingly strong and gritty. One of his big numbers, “Black Eyes,” is a decently heavy southern rock number. That Cooper's direction is grounded and naturalistic roots the musical numbers in honest emotion. This is most apparent in the big finale, “I'll Never Love Again,” which cuts away at just the right moment to hit the audience in the gut. I don't know if I'll ever feel the need to listen to the music isolated from the film but they work very well when paired together.

I wish I could be all edgy and say that “A Star is Born” is overrated or Oscar bait. But, nah, this movie totally worked for me. It's actually pretty good, a surprisingly touching and emotional romance that never goes too far into melodrama. The acting is excellent, the direction is surprisingly good, and the songs are pretty damn solid as well. I never thought I would be a fan of Bradley Cooper, much less of Bradley Cooper: Director, but here we are. 2019 truly is a strange time to be alive. [8/10]

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