WARNING: IF YOU’VE SEEN ANY OF THE PREVIOUS THREE VERSIONS OF A STAR IS BORN AND ARE YET TO SEE THE NEW VERSION, THEN THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS. IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE OTHER THREE VERSIONS, THEN IT ONLY CONTAINS MINOR ONES, BUT YOU MAY CONSIDER THEM SPOILERS NONETHELESS.
“The wheel goes round and round… and if you just wait long enough… it’s finally your turn.” – ‘Matt Libby’ (Jack Carson), A Star Is Born, 1954. It’s a story told many times before. The ageless and cautionary tale about falling as fast as you climb stretches as far back as Ancient Greece. “Don’t brag about your lightning pace, for slow and steady wins the race!”. Everybody who has grown up in an English-speaking country knows the fable of ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’. Most of us can probably still quote that line from memory. Yet as adults, this fundamental lesson more often than not slips from our minds. So before we talk about Bradley Cooper’s 2018 remake of a 1976 remake of a 1954 remake of a 1937 film, we need to take into account not
only the other three versions, but crucially, a 1932 movie called What Price, Hollywood?
Directed by George Cukor and originally titled ‘The Truth About Hollywood’, the film broke new ground in its telling of the pitfalls of Hollywood glamour. A budding young actress has a chance meeting with a troubled Hollywood director at the peak of his career. As she enjoys a rapid climb to stardom, he starts to deteriorate and her dream soon becomes a nightmare. Though the film was not a commercial success it was definitely a critical one, even earning an Oscar nomination for Best Story. Four years later, Cukor was approached by the now-independent David O. Selznick, who had co-produced What Price, Hollywood?. He was looking for a director for his next film, A Star Is Born. The story was pretty much the same as the other movie, but instead the director character was now a renowned screen actor who falls in love with and eventually marries the actress, making the resolution of their romance even more tragic – not to mention that is was to be filmed in brand-spanking-new Technicolor.
another remake was probably inevitable and now us millennials finally have one
Cukor declined, as he felt it was far too similar to the other film. But a couple of decades after the success of the first A Star Is Born film, Cukor went on to direct the 1954 remake, which was even more successful than the first one, both critically and commercially. Fast forward a few decades after the most recent of the remakes in 1976 and here we are in 21st Century Hollywood, where almost all of the highest grossing films are spin-offs, remakes, adaptations or sequels that cater to a progressive and/or nostalgia-hungry market. Another remake was probably inevitable and now us millennials finally have one. I had seen the three previous versions (as well as What Price, Hollywood?) prior to this one and as you can probably tell by my tone, I really wasn’t expecting a lot from this movie, but as much as I hate to admit this, 2018’s A Star Is Born is pretty great.
he really nails that country-singer raspy-ness in his tone
The film which is also the directorial debut of Bradley Cooper, who stars alongside Lady Gaga, lovingly pays homage to its predecessors whilst at the same time keeping the premise fresh as you’d expect. The 1937 and 1954 versions focus on an aspiring actress and an alcoholic leading man. The 2018 version, much like the 1976 version did, turns the lens away from Hollywood into the music industry, focusing on an unknown singer-songwriter and a drug-addicted, alcoholic rock/country star. Much like the previous two incarnations of this film, the 2018 remake is a musical, featuring a mostly-original score. Personally I wasn’t a huge fan of the songs individually because whilst they weren’t bad, most of them sounded pretty safe and generic, but at least they all specifically related to and/or progressed the movie rather than bringing the film to a halt. Lady Gaga (unsurprisingly) sounds amazing in all of them, and Bradley Cooper has a surprisingly nice voice too – he really nails that country-singer raspy-ness in his tone.
But what makes the 2018 version truly stand out amongst the rest is that the emotional core of the story ties in to the character’s on-stage personas and, subsequently, serves as the main focus. There are less characters of significance and less story beats, but rather than making it feel bland I actually think that what we are left with are the elements that feel true to the heart of the story. The balance between ‘Jackson’ (or ‘Jack’, played by Cooper) and ‘Ally’s professional and personal lives is arguably the strongest in all four of the movies. They’re both equally significant and not once does it attempt to idealise their unhealthy relationship either. There are many uncomfortable scenes involving excessive drunken face caressing and even emotional abuse, so if the poster with the happy-as-Larry singing couple is what drew you to this movie then you’re in for a rough ride, unfortunately.
not only do both Cooper and Gaga have brilliant chemistry and characterisation but we get to see a new side to both actors
One of the most interesting fundamental changes to the message of this version is that it draws a little more focus away from Ally and instead onto Jack’s struggles with drugs and alcohol, which may well have resulted from his difficult childhood and lifetime battle with tinnitus, but where does the blame for his decline truly lie? This is a motif that is repeated throughout the third act of the movie numerous times, which wasn’t there at all in the other three versions. Cooper’s careful and interesting approach to detail is only in addition to the acting, which I honestly think is the strongest part about this movie. Not only do both Cooper and Gaga have brilliant chemistry and characterisation but we get to see a new side to both actors; Cooper as a director and a singer and Gaga as a leading lady and not hiding behind the over-the-top, Madonna-like stage persona that she became notoriously famous for. Also, honourable mention to Sam Elliott, who really elevated the role of Jack’s manager/ brother/overall father figure to a level of true authenticity that we never saw in the other three movies.
The biggest major point I have against A Star Is Born is that it provides multiple examples of tropes that I’m personally becoming sick of, most egregiously the obligatory act-three ‘phone call from old friends who haven’t been in the movie for about an hour’ and the classic ‘the dog is sad so the audience should be sad too’. Whilst most of the film is shot beautifully, especially the beginning scenes with the camera movements, the cinematography and use of colour in any scene that isn’t a musical number is mostly pretty boring. I get that it’s supposed to be moody to some extent but a lot of the time it just doesn’t work, aside from the odd nice establishing shot. The pacing is fine for the most part – it’s a little slow but it’s steady (see, it always boils back down to the hare and the tortoise!) but it doesn’t really do anything creative to mirror either Ally’s quick rise to fame or Jack’s spiralling out of control.
But in spite of my criticisms, I personally think that the new version might be my favourite one out of the four of them. It’s not an exceptional movie, none of them are really. But it’s heartfelt, soppy and sweet and I’m not asking for anything more. All four movies do something completely different with the classic story so it’s so refreshing to see a take on it that feels passionate and real amongst the escapist fantasy of the 1954 version, the simplicity of the 1937 version and the straight awfulness grittiness of the 1976 version. It proves that there is A Star Is Born for every era. It’s not just a tale, the tragedy behind it acts as a continuous cycle that’s probably even playing out to some extent in some other industry right now and we’re not even realising it, after all, who knows what truly happens behind the facades of reality television, social networks and the media. I went in expecting nothing and came out pleasantly surprised.