Wednesday, October 03, 2018

A Star Is Born - fourth time lucky with great performances from Gaga (cinemas from 3 October)

Washed-out rocker Jackson Maine is feeding one of his addictions in a drag bar after a stadium gig when a former waitress steps on stage and blows him away with her vocal performance.

He chases, she relents, he relapses, she forgives, he’s hitting the buffers of his career, she’s younger and more talented than he’ll ever be. It’s an age old story – and this is the third remake of the original 1937 film and a line in the script admits “it’s the same story, told over and over” – but the 2018 version of A Star Is Born may turn out to be the definitive one.

Although it runs for 135 minutes, the plot is pared-down and the size of the cast is kept small. The central relationship between Ally (Lady Gaga) and Maine (Bradley Cooper) explores the imbalance of power, insecurity, loneliness, jealousy and vulnerability well enough to make this a good film. However, the quality of Gaga’s performances – acting and musical – throughout make it a remarkable film.

While the camera is quick to shift its focus away from close-ups of Cooper playing electric guitar, it lingers on Gaga as she delivers live vocal and piano performances to match the mood of each scene. In particular, her final song is a one-take wonder that is packed with emotion.

Ally is a defensive and ballsy character, yet one who is disarmingly accepting of Maine’s present weirdness. She’s played by Gaga, stripped of her outrageous stage costumes and wigs, but bursting with sass and energy. Cooper – making his directorial début – slowly reveals some of the family tensions that have informed Maine’s poor choices (Sam Elliott plays his older brother), yet the script never allows him to be redeemed.

The one weakness in the film is its male dominance. Perhaps that is the point Cooper still wanted to make eighty years after the original. Even the final voice in the film emphasises that this has been a story about Maine rather than Ally, that the male hero is more important to showcase than the young star who has been trapped in his once-gilded cage. It felt like a missed opportunity to send audiences out of cinema screens with hope in their step rather than the realisation that inequality still rules.

A Star Is Born sets a standard for musical story telling in the cinema. It suffers from none of the lip-syncing of The Greatest Showman. It’s more earthy than La La Land and it should age better than The Bodyguard*.

In most cinemas from 3 October.

* Having caught a screening of the documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me last year in Edinburgh, I rewatched The Bodyguard when it was recently broadcast again on TV. While the film has aged and no longer has the same impact as it enjoyed back in 1992, the parallels between the life of fictional Rachel Marron and Whitney Houston were incredibly uncomfortable to view. So I hope that in 25 years’ time we don’t discover dark secrets about A Star Is Born’s principal cast.

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