While waiting in line for “A Star is Born” to begin, I engaged in my favourite hobby: recounting random movie trivia to strangers. All it took was the woman next to me confessing she had only seen the Barbra Streisand version of “A Star is Born” for me to launch into a brief history of the story’s gestation.
The original “A Star is Born” is a 1937 non-musical William A. Wellman film starring Janet Gaynor about a girl who yearns to become a famous actress. She catches the eye of a famous self-destructive actor and her path to stardom begins.
The 1954 Judy Garland version of the story is a musical directed by George Cukor. It is the same story, for the most part. Here, the young girl is an aspiring actress as well as an aspiring singer. The 1976 version is a Barbra Streisand rock-musical directed by Frank Pierson. The young girl is now just yearning to be a singer, and her mentor is a rock star. These three films, though, all owe a fairly enormous debt to the 1932 film, “What Price Hollywood?” (also directed by George Cukor), which, despite a few plot differences, is essentially the same story – a waitress who yearns to be an actress who becomes beguiled by a star.
I include the trivia-heavy preamble to establish the 80 years of familiar plotting that Bradley Cooper must wrestle with in a fourth “A Star is Born,” which is his directorial debut. Even without the weight of the previous iterations on his back, the ingénue on her way to stardom is a familiar trope in cinema. This 2018 “Star,” like the most recent Streisand one, is also about a singer and not an actress. She is Ally, a winsome caterer with dreams of a career in the music industry, hampered by her (alleged) plainness. And he is Jackson Maine, played by Cooper as a hard-drinking country musician looking for a reason to be inspired. They meet, they fall in love. Her star rises. His… stalls.
Despite, or maybe because of, its rich history, “A Star is Born” has emerged as one of the inescapable films in conversations at the festival. A month before its release, its seems ubiquitous, riding on the back of Cooper’s turn from actor to director but more importantly on the popularity of the star at its centre, Lady Gaga. Like in both its Garland and Streisand-led predecessors, “A Star is Born” offers an ironic meta quality as it casts a famous singer and an inarguable star as a reticent performer who has yet to find success. Bound by history, Gaga’s turn seems ripe for critical scrutiny, and her only explicit misstep is her first scene, which feels forced and deliberate in its attempt to show Ally’s tough-as-nails character. The forcedness soon abates, though, and the moment the film’s title appears across the screen and she walks away from the audience is a nice touch. I kept coming back to the moment at the end of the film, though. In an intriguing departure from history, this iteration of the story is the first where the title “A Star is Born” feels like a misnomer.
Ally’s home life is marked by her relationship with her encouraging, if somewhat officious father, which offers a sweet father-daughter rapport but screenwriter Eric Roth (with help from Cooper and Will Fetters) throws his more careful emotional beats into the life story of Jackson Maine, which is paved with enough tragedy and heartbreak to fill up at least three country albums. The investment in Cooper’s character, who is excellent, sometimes threatens to slightly throw the film off balance. Lady Gaga is dependable as Ally, powering through her musical numbers with aplomb but her performance instinct is clear and distinct from her first number. There’s no tension here as to whether or not she can make it to stardom. And so the idea that Ally, so polished from the inception, can’t manage to find success just because of her nose seems almost quaint in 2018. But despite its suggestions of a music industry assessment, “A Star is Born” is not really invested in examining music as a career beyond the superficial awareness that it’s not easy. And when the film does threaten to get analytical and complex about the industry, it abandons the depth of that possibility.
Ally’s journey to fame is predicated on an alternative country song she sings with Jackson. Later on, she shoots to stardom with a sort of pop-vaguely R&B bumping and grinding song. There’s a charged moment when Jackson expresses disgust with the fact that she’s lost real music and it’s a moment that I’ve been wrestling with. I’m not sure what Roth and company are doing here and it doesn’t help that Ally’s “pop” output is markedly inferior to the country songs in the film. It also doesn’t help that her “pop” output reads as more broadly urban than her other songs, which have the quality of being more mainstreamed. It might be unfair to read it as an indicative of a country music vs pop/R&B music dynamic but equating pop music with fluff seems oddly facile in 2018 when there are so many pop superstars to choose from who are producing complex music.
But, then, are we really approaching “A Star is Born” for complex analysis of the music industry? Perhaps not. And perhaps I’m curmudgeonly to expect that. The film is about a couple and their demons. So, despite the way the middle of the film sags as it observes but never really engages with the industry, it knows the wisdom in returning to the small-scale humanity of Ally and Jackson for the end. “A Star is Born” is working at being pop cinema, and for all the pseudo-grit of the story (Cooper’s last scene is a whopper, and the tales of his childhood are effective), it never demands too much emotional investment. It’s genuinely nice and pleasant. And that’s fine.
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