As the third remake, A Star Is Born could have been called A Star Is Born (Again), but Bradley Cooper’s soulful exploration of the depredations of fame is an effective melodrama boasting genuine star turns from himself and Lady Gaga.
Cooper plays Jackson Maine, an alcoholic rock star with an okay singing voice and an acting voice like Sean Penn. On the trail for booze following a gig, he pops into a transvestite bar where he hears Ally belting out La Vie en Rose to the adoring patrons. Instantly smitten, Jack wanders backstage to get to know her. In a nicely played night-long talking session they visit a cop bar, get into a punch-up and she reveals her thwarted ambition to become a singer/songwriter, which she puts down to the men who control the industry and didn’t take to her big nose.
However, Jack loves her big conk and is soon whisking her away from her service sector job – she takes out the trash and has a loudmouth boss – on a private jet and is then ushering her on stage to sing the song she had performed for him the night before. This utter ludicrousness has all the hallmarks of reality television – X Factor: The Motion Picture – but Cooper is so heartfelt in his direction and performance, while Ally has a credibly wonderful voice, so the fairytale feels true.
Of course, we know that this fairytale is going to sour. Jack has enough skeletons in his closet to furnish a ghost train and many of the issues about his dad are still playing out with his road manager brother – a scene stealing performance from Sam Elliott. As Ally becomes more famous his conniving, sockless manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) plots to get Jack out of her life. Of course, much of the sabotage is carried out by Jack himself, with the pills, the booze and his various issues and jealousy. It’s testament to Cooper’s performance that he remains throughout a sympathetic and tragic character, a damaged man who, despite the wild man image, can’t find the courage to truly stand up for himself. Ally, by comparison, is a tough persona, apparently ready for fame even as it pulls her away from Jack.
Likewise, A Star Is Born pulls away from a few things. For instance, Jack’s insistence on integrity seems to be rooted in his own genre of MOR rock, whereas Ally heads in a Lady Gaga-ish direction. This is an argument the film never actually has out-loud and it’s a pity. Skating over some of the arguments undermines Cooper’s obvious ambition to make this relatively lightweight material more meaningful. In a world of Instagram and Spotify, the film is as clueless as Ally’s father (Andrew Dice Clay) is about YouTube on watching his daughter’s clip go viral.
Dave Chappelle turns up as an old pal, but with no context it’s hard to see this as anything other than a rather heavy-handed way of telling us that Jack has a black friend. Some moments are genuinely moving and the music is well used and belted out in the heartfelt tone that belongs to the whole film. When it comes down to it, Jack’s struggle with addiction is the true focus, eclipsing the story of Ally’s rise, even as she eclipses Jack. In this sense, it isn’t so much A Star Is Born as A Star Goes Out.
The 75th Venice Film Festival takes place from 29 August-8 September.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty