Look Back in Awe

Film review: A Star Is Born (Director: Bradley Cooper)

By Sascha Krieger

A Star Is Born is Hollywood’s own rising from the ashes Cinderella story. The seemingly plain, unrecognized young girl discovered by  a successful yet somewhat desperate man, benevolently lifted by him into the spotlight where the duckling turns into a swan and blossoms and blooms and fullfils all her potential because, well, there was a man to recognize it, help her, make her, while he himself goes down. The films had three incarnations already, the first in the 1930s, the last it the mid-70s, before it was remade again, curiously in year one of the #MeToo era. A chance, of course, to retell the story as an emancipatory tale, focus on the female perspective, level the playing field, re-invent the central couple as partners. There’s just one problem: not only is the director male, he also plays the male protagonist, setting the film up for a level of lopsidedness not easy to overcome. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.

But first things first. Apart from director/actor Bradley Cooper, the second casting choice was downright brilliant: pop icon Lady Gaga who has transformed herself in recent year from a somewhat unreal, pointedly artificial pop super star, known for excentric outfits and performances, who called her fans „Little Monsters“ into a serious singer who’s recently quite capably established herself as an actor in the American Horror Story series. A woman going from image to authenticity plays one who moves in the opposite direction. For Ally’s path is a curious one. In the brilliant opening sequence we encounter two worlds: there’s country rock super star Jackson Maine (Cooper), on stage, in a vortex of musical euphoria, the camera in motion, the light changing, the face moving in an out of the frame, an orgasm of drugs, music and community, creative, triumphant and destructive at the same time. Then: a white-tiled bar bathroom, the camera fixed, a waitress in uniform breaking up with her boyfriend over the phone, a prison-like setting in which the young woman is captured.A fine and atmospheric set-up.

Soon enough Jackson, looking for a drink, shows up in what is revealed as a drag bar, hears her sing and is smitten. The first half hour or so is essentially a long exchange of looks, touches, an awkward process of accepting and rejecting what is plain to see: the obvious talent of the woman with the booming voice and the instant attraction of the two protagonists (the lack of which was a major issue in the 1976 version which introduces the country music setting to the story).The camera stays close and is also in constant motion, the light changing, focus shifting, similarly to the opening stage scene. This is elementary life and it’s also a stage, a launchpad for a career and perhaps the burial ground of another.

The film is at its strongest in these early scenes which, however, already reveal a major weakness: 2018’s A star Is Born cannot shed its male point of view and its patriarchal heritage. Again, it is the man who takes the lead and, assisted, then rivaled by another man, „makes her“. Gaga’s Ally is at times frighteningly naive in her schoolgirl like enthusiasms, her stunning blindness, her stubborn initial refusal to take risks which appears quite infantile and need to be broken by a man, of course, and her unreflected willingness to be manipulated as she is turned from a more country-style singer songwriter into a red-haired plastic pop star. An enforced change the character takes surprisingly well, the inherent objectification of the female body remaining strangely unproblematic for the most part. Or it would be if this wasn’t Lady Gaga: she plays her part less than outgrows her. Her movements, her posture, her face contradict her Ally’s one-dimensional simplicity. Here’s a strong, emancipated, reflected woman subverting her damsel in distress cliché rolled into something coming as close to a feminist statement as this decidedly non-feminist film allow.

And she has to fight for space, as the director Cooper prefers to focus on the actor Cooper. His struggle with alcoholism and drug addiction is the film’s primary focus. And it#s executed well. Bradley Cooper is impressive, nuanced and credible as the broken rock star and the man haunted by his demons. Which the film also doesn’t make easy for him: the script is full of holes, at times over-explained at others strangely fragmented. The characters don’t develop, they just appear changed, sometimes so much, that it’s hard for the viewer to connect their different versions. Jackson’s descent into addition isn’t one – one day he’s just suddenly a wreck. The same goes for his jealousy or her self-confidence. For a film that is decidedly old-fashioned in its ambition to tell a grand old tragic love story, it is remarkable clueless how to do so.

Which leads to a strange thing: the tragic turn, the classic young and yang of a rise coupled by a downfall leaves at least this viewer surprisingly cold. Too often does the film spell out what it’s trying to do. Which is often up to Jackson’s brother Bobby, played by a Sam Elliott whose talent is entirely wasted in the role (which similarly goes for Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s kindly buffoonish father, running a limousine business with quirky old men and providing the film’s comic relief). This tendency leads to a lack of immediacy and naturalness. the plot constantly reveals its constructive mechanisms, especially as it’s centered around as well as bookended by performance scenes (concert giant Live Nation is the film’s primary co-producer!), that especially its later part feels way too contrived, aiming too hard at the audience’s tears (not entirely unsuccessfully as this reviewer was able to observe around him) to be anything other than a remake (of a remake of a remake) that is trying too hard and constantly looking back. To what? An easier time when gender roles were clearly defined and feminism could be watered down to manipulated pseudo-emancipation, all nicely controlled by men? Where Lady Gaga outgrows the film and hints at this story#s disruptive potential, A Star Is Born rolls up and hides itself. In the cosy blanket of retrospection. A wasted chance.

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