A confession first: I haven’t seen any version of A Star is Born before submitting to its latest incarnation directed by Bradley Cooper. That said, it makes no difference whether or not you’ve seen the three previous versions to either be moved to tears by the actor’s directorial debut or feel impassive toward it. You either enjoy giving yourself to classical Hollywood cinema or you’re impenetrable to it, as this writer is. However, with this movie, I was reminded of formula above feeling, as each dot was connected with the typical purpose of the emotionally manipulative principles of Hollywood filmmaking.
Spiced up with modern music that speaks to guitar rock’s lack of popularity nowadays, some intimate camera work by Matthew Libatique and featuring gung-ho performances from Cooper and Lady Gaga the film breathlessly barrels toward its tragic finale as it follows the fall of Jackson Maine (Cooper) and the rise of singularly named Ally (Gaga). After all, what real pop star has two names? Though there’s much hype about the performances of the two leads, it’s Libatique’s camera work that will call the attention of astute movie viewers. It really wants to get you close to the performers in different ways. It worships Gaga’s face while trying to look away from Cooper’s. All the guitar playing he learned for the part is even kept hidden away.
There is this strain to bring the audience close to the characters. There’s no need for subtlety by the actors because the camera is doing the heavy lifting to focus on the performances. Libatique often uses such a shallow focused lens on the two leads background players and even entire crowds blur into the background. Story-wise, you’re on the whirlwind trip with Ally because it’s all new to her. Her naivete is easy to accept as such. The real work is on Cooper to keep an almost always stumbling drunk Jackson interesting. For the most part he does it well, but it’s a strain when you meet a character at his nadir with nowhere to go but down.
It all becomes a play in loserdom and a strain for sympathy carried by Ally’s confusion in this new world that makes her famous by suddenly painting her hair red, learning some dance move, and worst of all taking away her piano. How this makes her a more popular star than the rough-edged, heartfelt talent she showed on stage as Jackson’s partner, does a great injustice to what pop music means to an audience. It’s a twist with little noticeable logic, which shortchanges the possibilities of the performance but also wastes so much opportunity in an already indulgently long film at two hours and 15 minutes.
There’s further reason why this kind of film feels so dated, and much of it lies in the trouble with Ally’s character, playing varying versions of the dated archetype of mother and whore throughout the film. If she isn’t trying to protect and nurse her drunken mentor, she’s following him toward the flame of fame and fortune based on a one-night fling. She ignores clear red flags — with some doubtful pauses for dramatic heft — tempted by superficial rewards and sells out her soul for it. It’s obviously part of the cautionary tale, but the film’s unrelenting desire to continually dwell on the differences between these characters never allows for any subtlety in story nor performance.
One can’t ever expect Hollywood to tone things down for something understated that might fly over some potential ticket buyers’ heads, but what needed to stand out about A Star is Born are the performances at the heart of the film. All the editing, camera work and let’s not forget the sentimental music (Jackson’s brand of country-rock sounds suspiciously like Lord Huron, whose song “The Night We Met” you may have heard in the Netflix series “13 Reasons”). None of that allows for anything to be said about the acting, however. For all its moralizing about the industry, the film sure embraces what’s easy about being popular without the substance.
A Star is Born runs 135 minutes and is rated R. It opens everywhere on Friday, Oct. 5. Warner Bros. Pictures invited us to a preview screening at a Dolby Cinema for the purpose of this review.