Hollywood is not always the gold, shimmering image it makes itself out to be. Being a rock star, a movie star or even a wannabe has some risk to your health, heart and mind. No story has shown this better, for over 80 years, than A Star is Born. Four films have now been made following the life of a wannabe star meeting a musician (or actor, originally) whose star and fame are fading. They fall in love, but his addictions to alcohol and drugs gets the best of him. The films were made in 1937, 1954, and 1976 before the current Bradley Cooper helmed version. In all iterations, the husband just can’t handle the success of his bride and finds failings in his own life, leading to his suicide.
Small changes have been made over the decades. In the earliest versions of A Star is Born, starring Janet Gaynor (1937) and Judy Garland (1954), the story focuses primarily on wannabe film star, Esther, who moves from a small town to Hollywood to make it big. After meeting a famous actor, named Norman Maine, and falling in the love the two set a course to make her best fit for the big screen. This involves changing names, changing looks and even changing her backstory.
The 1976 A Star is Born, which is probably the most popular of the original three, met a new Esther who wanted to be a singer who falls for rocker, John Norman Howard. The idea of switching from movie star to musician was a strong choice as the world of music in 1976 was during the heyday of the rock star (and heavy drug use amongst musicians). It become more common in the 70’s to see a musician succumb to drug addictions than actors – not to say substance abuse has ever left Hollywood. Stadium shows became the new blockbuster and the modern version is following course by featuring a story about musicians, not actors.
Today, we have Ally and Jackson Maine, the down and out rocker who is spending his days playing festivals. The spotlight has moved away from him making his substance abuse a major issue in his life. Past versions have focused on the female character, but now we see a deeper look into Jackson’s history. This allows Jackson’s failings, substance abuse and stubbornness to be better explained. Ally is an ingenue and singing prodigy that has yet to be discovered. She meets Jackson Maine while performing at a drag bar. The two fall into a whirlwind romance and the launch of Ally’s stardom. Ally’s focus is then split between her burgeoning career and Jackson’s substance abuse.
The Rise to Fame
We do see a successful transformation of Ally from girl-next-door to pop sensation, but Ally doesn’t seem to mind. Because the story is focused heavily on Jackson, Ally’s reactions to her changing image goes unseen, and she seems to be fine with dyeing her hair and changing wardrobe; though she fights a little on the use of backup dancers. The story would have benefited from seeing Ally’s perspective on her career. As with all versions, the downfall of Jackson comes when he interrupts her first awards speech with drunken shenanigans leading to her changing career plans to support his sobriety. The ride to a Grammy feels easy, with her challenges coming from Jackson, exclusively. The story of all the films is the female character rides a skyrocket to fame that doesn’t seem to trouble any of them. It would have been interesting to see a bit more of Ally’s response to fame and public perception, which Gaga has struggled with herself.
Lady Gaga’s performance is striking and a long way away from the Gaga persona we have seen in the past. Gaga, herself, has spent time filling different roles within each album release and has spent time in Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story universe, but this role fits her to a tee. Ally is not a pushover but can’t fight for herself when it comes to singing. I’m never the biggest fan of an ugly duckling story in the modern era of feminism, so hearing from one of the biggest stars that she is not attractive enough to succeed is a little hard to hear. Though, Hollywood is a fickle and image-centric town, her voice is what wins the day. Truly talented people don’t stay unnoticed for long, despite the image they (or anyone else) may have about them. It would have been interesting to meet an Ally who does fully believe in herself from the beginning, instead of implying that she needed Jackson to encourage her to see her own beauty. By the end, she is well-rounded and self-assured.
Although everyone in the theater was talking about Lady Gaga on the way in, they were talking about Bradley Cooper on the way out. He looks aged, weathered, and broken. To complete such a transformation while also directing this film is a triumph. Jackson’s character is obviously flawed but his drive to be a better man is the motivation for the story. He is a good singer and keeps pace with Gaga. Although this is her first film, she keeps pace this Cooper’s strong performance. Oscar buzz for both stars is well deserved.
A New Direction
This is Cooper’s first time in the director’s chair, giving a first look into his directing style. The film has a lot of close-ups and montages. Time passes in a way where one song can carry the characters through several different tour dates. This is a musical after all, but one of the strengths of the film is that we don’t stop and watch someone sing every few minutes. The music doubles as the film’s score with songs that are diegetic becoming non-diegetic to continue the story. There are highlight songs, like “Shallow,” as this is the first song they perform together. “I’ll Never Love Again” also is a featured song at the end of the film. All others seem to blend together as a fluid score. This feels like an evolution in the musical genre. Cooper made the choice as a writer and director to move away from Ally’s career launching Saturday Night Live appearance to create a scene between Jackson and his brother Bobby on the side of the stage. Ally’s moment was made, and the song could still be heard, but just a snippet was enough and new scene needed to begin. No longer do we need each song to be its own scene, but rather a sequence. We have come a long way since Garland’s Esther who dreams of being a musical film star needing each song to be its own theatrical moment or even Streisand’s pop star Esther showcasing every song in hopes of creating a hit.
Overall, this film is successful in its retelling. There are a few kinks but is a star maker for Lady Gaga and an excellent start for Bradley Cooper as a director. This story is not new, and there may even be another remake in a few decades, but this story is an important one. Despite Hollywood’s best efforts to look perfect, the brightest stars never get out of the shallows. With each new era this story of love and loss takes on a new meaning, shared a new generation. This film is worthy of Oscar attention and may bypass 1976 as the best version of A Star is Born.