It’s going to come as news to some audiences, but Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, A Star is Born, is a remake. It was done first in 1937, by Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick, with Janet Gaynor as an up-and-coming movie star who falls for Frederic March’s washed-up, alcoholic actor who both mentors and weds her. It was remade in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason in the lead roles. Barbara Streisand starred in the 1976 version, which changed the story’s milieu to popular music and cast her opposite Kris Kristofferson.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a remake, if you can answer the simple question, why are you making it? The problem with remakes is that all too often studios make them because they own the copyright, or to preserve the copyright, or because they have no original ideas. Silents were remade as talkies, black and white were remade in color. Sometimes an update makes sense.
Frankly, it makes sense here. Cooper’s version (he co-wrote it, directed it and produced much of the music) keeps the music business setting, and casts Lady Gaga as a shy, young singer Cooper’s Jackson Main finds singing Edith Piaf covers in a drag bar. As in the prior versions, Main is a big star, but his career is on a slow decline, owing to his progressive alcoholism and drug addiction, as well as deteriorating hearing. Main is fascinated by Lady Gaga’s Ally, and blown away by her voice – a reaction the audience will share. Modern audiences will relate far more to the modern music business milieu than the prior versions.
Cooper is sensational in this, and his glacial eyes have never been bluer. Perhaps not surprisingly, given that the star co-wrote the script, his character is the better developed of the two. Lady Gaga’s shapeshifting stage persona perhaps predisposes us to accept her character as inscrutable – and that may also predispose us to cut the movie a little slack if her character is less developed than Cooper’s. What she does well is sell us that she’s a girl next door from a middle class neighborhood with world class talent. And we never really question that Main falls in love with Ally almost at first sight. Their chemistry is palpable, never more so than during some of the movie’s electrifying concert scenes.
The script could stand to be more focused. The movie sets up a fascinating battle for Ally’s soul between Main, who constantly urges her to be herself, and her Mephistophelean record producer (Rafi Gavron) who urges artifice and background dancers, but never quite elevates to the prominence in the plot it deserves. The movie runs two hours and fifteen minutes and it’s too long, even given time taken up by musical numbers. They’re not the problem. Some scenes have an unpleasant eau d’improvisation, a common evil when actors direct, and meander aimlessly to little effect. Although Main’s alcoholism, and his attempts to get sober, are an integral part of the story, rehab scenes are always a mistake. They take up time, they’re boring, and audiences don’t like them.
As a director, Cooper joins illustrious company as a movie star who turned to directing – Charlie Chaplin, Dick Powell, Woody Allen, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson and Ben Affleck had major successes behind the camera, often right out of the starting gate. Cooper’s worked for Eastwood, along with J.J. Abrams, David O. Russell and Derek Cianfrance. He’s a smart actor and it would hardly be surprising if he picked up a thing or two along the way. He has, and the movie is workmanlike but scarcely perfect. The entire movie has a slightly choppy feel and the editing is par at best. Cooper also has what amounts to a fetishistic fascination with the human back, and someone really needs to tell him that it’s okay to occasionally put the camera in front of the actors.
Still, it seems churlish to complain. Despite those failings, this is probably the most engrossing version of the venerable property, and Cooper’s take on the fading male star is by far the most likable. There’s some delightfully quirky casting in the supporting roles, particularly Andrew “Dice” Clay as Ally’s father, and Dave Chappelle as an old crony of Main’s. Ron Rifkin and Greg Grunberg, who starred on the J.J. Abrams TV spy drama Alias, on which Cooper had a recurring role early in his career, make welcome cameos. Sam Elliott, whose face really does belong on Mt. Rushmore at this point, is a class addition in any movie, and adds some gravitas here.
The never-more timely theme of addiction is handled with heartbreaking frankness here, and Cooper is painfully believable as an alcoholic and addict whose disease is threatening to take him all the way down. Sugar-coating has been dispensed with. There is no attempt to make it funny, cute or even ironic. Some of these scenes will make your skin crawl.
A Star is Born is, of course, one of those Hollywood stories, and the movie can only end one way, though no spoilers will be given here for those who haven’t seen prior versions, or who fail to notice this version’s occasionally ham-handed foreshadowing. But the fact remains that King Kong has to climb the Empire State Building, Ben-Hur can’t end before the chariot race and blood will be spilled at the OK Corral. It’s well-handled here, far better than in the Streisand version (which ended with one interminable, awkwardly close shot of Streisand during the movie’s final number). It’s actually handled far better here than the earlier versions.
A Star is Born hits the high notes. If Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut isn’t a perfect outing, and it isn’t, it is entertaining, and yes, you’ll probably be humming the songs on the way out.