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A Star Is Born (2018) Movie Review

A Star Is Born (2018) movie poster A Star Is Born

Theatrical Release: October 5, 2018 / Running Time: 136 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Bradley Cooper / Writers: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters (screenplay); Moss Hart (1954 screenplay); John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion, Frank Pierson (1976 screenplay); William Wellman, Robert Carson (story)

Cast: Lady Gaga (Ally), Bradley Cooper (Jackson Maine), Sam Elliott (Bobby Maine), Andrew Dice Clay (Lorenzo), Rafi Gavron (Rez Gavron), Anthony Ramos (Ramon), Dave Chappelle (George "Noodles" Stone), Alec Baldwin (Himself), Marlon Williams (Himself), Brandi Carlile (Herself), Ron Rifkin (Carl), Barry Shabaka Henley (Little Feet), Michael D. Roberts (Matty), Michael J. Harney (Wolfie), Greg Grunberg (Phil - Jack's Driver), Eddie Griffin (Pastor)


With this fourth incarnation, A Star Is Born must officially be upgraded from Hollywood tradition to institution. It began in the 1930s when Robert Carson wrote a screenplay with two others (plus at least six uncredited scribes) and William A. Wellman directed. Released in 1937, the film won an Oscar for original story, claimed an honorary award for color photography, and drew nominations in six other categories, including Best Picture, Director, and Actor and Actress for stars Fredric March and Janet Gaynor. In 1954, a remake from director George Cukor and screenwriter
Moss Hart earned six fruitless Oscar nominations, most significantly for its leads James Mason and Judy Garland. In 1976, the film was remade again, this time the plot's focus changed from film actors to popular musicians. A vehicle for Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand, this version cleaned up at the Golden Globes, winning all five of the awards for which it was nominated including all three Comedy or Musical honors. At the Oscars, it only won Original Song and competed for three other technical honors.

Now after a forty-two year hiatus, we get a new A Star Is Born in a dramatically different era. Arriving after years of development news and rumors which had such figures as Clint Eastwood, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Beyoncé attached at different times, this one ultimately is directed, produced, and co-written by Bradley Cooper, who also stars in the film alongside Lady Gaga. After a decade of putting in work on television and film, Cooper graduated to leading man status with The Hangover and its sequels. He proved both his dramatic chops and comedic timing in the David O. Russell masterworks Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. And then as producer/star of Eastwood's American Sniper, he drove what seemed like a potential miss into a nearly unprecedented R-rated blockbuster and major awards contender too.

Cooper's A Star Is Born seems shaped by all these experiences. His flashy yet understated directorial style and earnest, character-driven storytelling is unmistakably influenced by Russell's films. And his considerable creative opportunities here, gifted without a single prior directing credit to his name, are bestowed upon him by Warner Bros. Pictures, a major studio whose faith in him on Sniper paid off handsomely.

All of this -- eighty years of cinema including nine years of Cooper as a movie star -- leads to this incarnation of A Star Is Born. It won't be mistaken for the others, though it most directly resembles the '70s version, again focusing on musicians. But it will most likely remain one of the leading forces of this just-launched film awards season that will run until the Oscars are held on February's last Sunday.

Bradley Cooper writes, directs, produces, and acts and sings as Jackson Maine in 2018's Oscar-bound remake "A Star Is Born."

Cooper plays Jackson Maine, an accomplished singer-songwriter the director recently revealed to be inspired visually and musically by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. Orphaned at a young age, Jackson was somewhat raised by his significantly older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott). On the surface, he seemingly turned out quite all right: he remains popular and able to draw large, adoring crowds after more than a decade in the business. But Jackson has demons, which he tackles regularly with heavy drinking.

Wandering into a New York City bar one night after a concert, Jackson encounters a number of drag musicians performing songs on stage. Also among them is Ally (Lady Gaga), a young woman who wows the crowd with her take on Edith Piaf's "La Vie en Rose." She grabs Jackson's attention enough for him to want to meet her backstage and they share a spontaneous evening together, which comes to include a bar fight and a bag of frozen peas in a convenience store parking lot. The two musicians -- one established, one not even aspiring as her server job is her only paying one -- bond in that parking lot with some opening up and some singing.

Before long, Ally quits her job and joins Jackson, enjoying a private jet ride and then facing her fears to share the stage with him on a duet she herself penned. The two are both smitten by their effortless connection which is equal parts romantic relationship and professional collaboration. It is a bumpy road for both facets of the couple, which the film shows candidly and truthfully as Ally's viral success with Jackson inevitably leads to a promising solo career. There's a spur-of-the-moment wedding, a "Saturday Night Live" musical performance where the nerves are palpable, a painfully and amusingly frank bathtub conversation, an unforgettable night at the Grammys, and a much-needed stint in rehab.

In all of these scenes, Cooper displays surprisingly great filmmaking instincts. We've seen enough musician biopics and documentaries for movies like Walk Hard and Popstar to be riotously entertaining. We've also gotten three major tellings of this story, and its arcs are familiar even if you haven't seen any of the previous versions. While the original story was the one area the original movie was awarded a competitive Oscar, the passage of decades has both made that no longer original and one of the only areas where this 2018 version doesn't blow you away. Cooper resists bathing this in gloss and convention. You never feel like you're just going through the beats, even if the hallmark divergent rise and fall must be honored.

Ally (Lady Gaga) experiences a rise to stardom under the tutelage of Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper).

An abundance of emotion and heart makes this feel not like a major studio tentpole or an awards-attracting prestige picture, even though it is likely to end up both of those things despite a modest $36 million budget. There's simply too much humanity
on display for you to notice any air of calculation. You never feel like Cooper, thrice nominated as an actor and once as a producer, is making this film to win Oscars. That will simply be the beneficial byproduct of him pouring passion and himself into this project.

Cooper sets the tone on both sides of the camera. His direction completely disguises his utter lack of past experience. But that big job hasn't taken anything at all away from his work in front of the camera, which is as arresting and complex as anything he's shown before, including his fantastic turns in some of this decade's best films. You see some of the anguish of his Silver Linings Playbook performance, but whereas there it was deftly played with uplifting humor and gentle romance, here it is mined for weighty drama. Jackson wrestles not only with alcoholism and depression but hearing loss and tinnitus that stand to rob him of the one sure thing he's always had.

Cooper sets the bar very high and his castmates try their best to reach it. In the role of ingénue, Gaga gets nearly as much screentime as Cooper and for a world famous musician whose previous acting credits are as herself, an uncredited no-dialogue bit part in an episode of "The Sopranos", and one season of FX's "American Horror Story", her performance here will be scrutinized intensely. Fortunately, she lives up to the role's challenges set by both her leading man and, if you know their turns, Garland and Streisand. It shouldn't be too great a surprise that someone who performs music for a living can be pretty convincing in, well, a music-driven performance. But her fine work here both dramatically and musically is essential to this Star succeeding as well as it does. There are a couple of big moments she isn't as strong as she could be and that probably will be the difference between a nomination and a win, but this is a fine turn, whether it ends up being the start of something new or, more likely, a substantial career footnote.

Likely to join the two leads in the Nominations Morning announcement is Sam Elliott, one of those around-forever types who always catches your eye (or, perhaps more accurately, your ear). He's never before been nominated and though his screentime is limited here, he's excellent in conveying the gamut of conflicting emotions that come with being Jackson's protective big brother/surrogate father/manager. Others tastefully chip in some complementary notes as well, including Andrew Dice Clay as Ally's father, Broadway's Hamilton alum Anthony Ramos as Ally's friend, and Dave Chappelle as Jackson's faintly ethereal old friend.

A Star Is Born is one of those movies best enjoyed before it generates a lot of hype. Since it is opening wide next weekend in over 3,500 theaters, with critics' reviews having sung its praises since it premiered at the Venice Film Festival last month, that will be hard to do, if not impossible. If the film manages to avoid the obvious frontrunner status that seemingly doomed La La Land two years ago, it should enjoy a very fruitful awards season above and beyond the three now dated previous filmings of this tale. But you should try to enjoy it before all of that transcends.

Related Reviews:
A Star Is Born (1954) • White Boy RickDon't Worry, He Won't Get Far on FootSmallfootLa La Land
Bradley Cooper: American SniperSilver Linings PlaybookAmerican HustleWar DogsBurnt
Sam Elliott: The HeroGrandma | Written by Eric Roth: Forrest GumpThe InsiderThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button

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Reviewed September 29, 2018.

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