The story of A Star Is Born is so ubiquitous by now that I knew what was going to happen – one half of a couple sees their fame ascend, as the other fades into obscurity – despite never having seen any other version of this movie. It’s also so ubiquitous that I was asking why we even had this remake, or whether I needed to see it in the first place. And to be perfectly frank, the only reason I did see it is because of its Best Picture nomination status.
Being frank again, I’m still doubtful it deserves that status, but – as with Bohemian Rhapsody – I still didn’t hate it. Bradley Cooper turns in a heck of a performance as Jackson Maine, the country-rock star who’s gradually disappearing into a haze of bourbon and drugs; and Lady Gaga is equally impressive as Ally, the aspiring singer and songwriter who flourishes under his promotion.
The music and concert scenes, ironically, were the ones that left me cold. Much has been said of how Cooper directed and filmed these scenes; many of them are live performances, actually staged at various concert venues during actual music festivals with actual concert goers willing to turn up for a half hour in between other bands’ sets. Everyone sings just fine, the music is pretty and all. But for me, it just comes across as “singers are singing” and that’s that. There’s apparently some subtle conflict between Jackson and Ally about her abandoning the boho-ballad path and going all pop, but I did not pick up on that at all; maybe because I was chalking it up to my own personal taste mapping to Jackson’s music anyway, so whatever I was picking up I thought was coming from me in the first place.
The moments that resonated with me instead were a bunch of smaller things sprinkled throughout. Ally has a handful of scenes with a close friend named Ramon, played by Anthony Ramos (who I admit I recognized as “hey, it’s Laurens from Hamilton!“). His role is pretty damn small and is a bit of a one-note “sidekick”, but something about them is so endearing that I was charmed; in a very early scene Ally has brought Ramon along as a sort of chaperone when Jackson flies her to see one of his gigs, but the pair are flying there via Jackson’s private jet – and they are enjoying the hell out of being in a private jet for the first time, freaking out over the fact that “omigod there are actually couches on this jet can you believe it, here you lie down on one and I’ll lie down on the other just because we can because omigod this is a plane with couches on it and eeee there’s also champagne oh no we spilled it are we going to get in trouble but hang on there is champagne on a plane this is bonkers AAAAAAAA!” It’s a scene that lasts only seconds, but I was completely captivated.
There are some equally fun bits backstage at the drag bar where Jackson first discovers Ally – reportedly, Cooper asked Lady Gaga for some personal recommendations for who to cast in the scene, and when they were shooting the backstage scene Cooper left it unscripted, telling them “you all know what people say in the dressing room at a drag bar better than anyone, so just go for it.” A couple of the performers had so much fun improv’ing that Cooper gave them an extra scene or two; there’s also a lovely callback to them all when Ally is struck with stage fright before an early gig, and Ramon takes her aside to call up the bar on Skype so the drag performers can give her a pep talk.
Dave Chappelle also has a surprising cameo as an old friend of Jackson’s who’s retired from performing, because he’s gotten caught up in a simpler way of life as a doting househusband. Much has been made of the conversation his character “Noodles” has with Jackson, with Noodles talking about how stepping away from the spotlight ultimately was more fulfilling; it’s an eerie echo to Chappelle’s own path. There may be cause for that; Chappelle is actually a good friend of Cooper’s, and he may have included the moment, or at least the casting, as a personal touch. Cooper apparently sprinkled little bits of his own self and his life throughout the movie, most notably in casting his own dog Charlie as the dog Ally and Jackson adopt (also named “Charlie” in the film).
….Much has also been made of Cooper’s Best-Director-nomination “snub” from the Academy. However, much as I was unconvinced that this was a Best-Picture nominee, I’m also not convinced that Cooper should have been a Best-Director nominee. He did fine work, especially for a first-time director, but I’m not convinced it’s Oscar caliber yet. Best Actor, absolutely. Best Director, not so much.