Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga and The Star Machinery
The Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga remake of A Star is Born has us ponder questions of commerce versus art against a backdrop of so many real-life rock casualties.
Photos by Warner Bros. Philippines

Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga and The Star Machinery

THE X-PAT FILES - Scott Garceau (The Philippine Star) - October 7, 2018 - 12:00am

There’s the sight of Bradley Cooper — stumbling onstage, a perfect vision of denim-clad country-rock authenticity in visceral hand-held — that says all we need to know about this version of A Star is Born (opening Oct. 10). Or maybe it’s the moment when Lady Gaga, playing one-name budding songwriter Ally, opens her mouth to sing during Jackson’s concert, and they both suddenly realize she’s heading for the stratosphere.

Maybe every generation deserves its own take on A Star is Born. It’s a classic love story littered with Kleenex moments — but, told in the post-Cobain, post-everything era, it has a gritty rock feel to it that’s missing from the previous incarnations, even the one that starred ’70s pop icon tandem Barbara Streisand/Kris Kristofferson. (You know the one: your parents no doubt had a copy of their 1976 soundtrack LP lying around the house, all frizzy perm and shirtless rock star embrace.)

The story of an on-the-way-down musical icon mentoring (and falling in love with) an on-the-way-up superstar has now been filmed four times. The latest iteration — directed, produced and starring Cooper — centers around declining country-rock legend Jackson Maine who (literally) stumbles into a late-night drag bar one night and spies promising young(-ish) singer Ally performing La Vie En Rose onstage. He’s entranced, and invites her out for a drink after the set. It turns into one of those bar brawl/get-to-know-you mini-stop-parking-lot moments, where Jackson coaxes Ally to sing him one of her own songs. “I strongly suspect you might be a songwriter,” he drawls afterward. Next thing you know, he plucks her out of obscurity and drags her into the spotlight.

Ally knows she’s got talent, but has been hampered by a lifetime of self-doubt relating to her physical appearance (an issue reportedly close to Lady Gaga’s own life story.) What follows is plenty engaging, largely due to the chemistry between the two stars (shot in electric neon hues by half-Filipino cinematographer Matthew Libatique) as they fall in love, fight, drink and perform their way to a pinnacle, before experiencing the inevitable rock-bottom slide downward. (Indeed, there are some serious OMG moments, including the worst possible thing you can imagine happening while you’re receiving a Grammy.)

It helps that Cooper and Gaga are surrounded by authentic supporting characters, especially Sam Elliott as Bobby, Jackson’s older brother and road manager; Dave Chappelle as Noodles, Jackson’s Memphis friend and anchor; and — it surprises me to write this — Andrew “Dice” Clay as Ally’s Sinatra-wannabe father Lorenzo. These are lived-in performers playing characters who’ve encountered plenty of bad road in their lives. It adds a layer of grit to the proceedings.

Whereas both the 1937 and 1954 versions focused on washed-up matinee idols and their young protégés, the 1976 remake took a page from the all-encompassing rock scene of the time (although one doesn’t think of Evergreen as “rock” anything). The Bradley Cooper version goes deeper, and darker: one only has to picture his Jackson Maine grinding up an Oxycontin with his boot so he can snort it, battling with tinnitus, or mashing a bagel with cream cheese into Lady Gaga’s face whilst in a drunken stupor.

It’s a big mess, is what the rock scene is, and A Star is Born has us ponder questions of commerce versus art against a backdrop of so many real-life rock casualties. When this remake was originally bandied about Hollywood in 2011, Clint Eastwood was onboard as the director, with names like Leo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise and Christian Bale pegged for the bottoming-out rocker. Taking the director reins from Eastwood, Cooper had in mind the self-destructive arc of Kurt Cobain, and it’s a fair comparison. Other combative husband-wife musical tandems come to mind — Ike and Tina, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, Cher and Greg Allman, though not, perhaps, Sid and Nancy.

Cooper is committed to "honest" moments, and A Star is Born has plenty of them. The concert scenes alone have a thrilling livewire feel, and the small private bits between Gaga and Cooper ring truthful, even when painful. Yet there are things that remind us that this is still a Hollywood movie, such as the suspiciously white teeth of both leads (do they ever drink coffee?), as well as the trim and athletic physique of Jackson Maine, despite his advanced state of alcoholism.

This is where art does, indeed, come face to face with commerce in A Star is Born. While it has its share of hard-core, gritty moments, it also indulges a certain level of schmaltz that is perhaps a built-in requirement for this particular oft-told tale. So we will, in fact, see Ally release a single tear down her cheek not once, but twice during the film. And we will see perhaps one too many “the way we were” montages. But this is balanced against earthy, warts-and-all performances by the leads that propel the story higher. 

Whether you find it art or commerce, A Star is Born is a Big Romance, and first-time director Cooper is here to sell tickets. The thing you can’t really buy in Hollywood is chemistry, and fortunately Gaga and Cooper spark some. Their scenes together — whether onstage, between the sheets, or at the piano — have an easy, fluid charm. And their squabbles have the sharp, volatile edge of real-life fights. 

Ally joins Jackson onstage, gets discovered and signed to a label, jealousy ensues, yada-yada-yada; I don’t want to spoil the story because, as I said, every generation deserves its own A Star is Born. It’s a surprisingly resilient premise, maybe because it rings true, even in this #MeToo era. In any generation, there are older, wiser stars who want both to nurture and live vicariously through the light of emerging talents. Jackson is like that, and it’s his bittersweet nurturing that brings Ally out of her shell. Also bittersweet is his relationship with older brother Bobby, who quit pursuing his own musical dreams when Jackson eclipsed him. “You were never no good,” Jackson barks at Bobby backstage during one of their nightly dustups. “If I was no good, why’d you steal my voice?” Bobby barks back. “Cuz you didn’t have nothing to say,” Jackson growls in return. (Elliott deserves a nomination here, just doing fine, measured work.)

Cooper reportedly went the extra mile to find truth in his Jackson Maine. He literally tailored his voice on Elliott’s Marlboro Man drawl, and when casting the movie, he literally chanced upon Lady Gaga performing La Vie En Rose for a cancer fundraiser. (Talk about method casting!) Gaga’s songs, written specially for the film, are the musical core of this movie, spinning its message of finding somebody, taking a deep dive below the surface and trusting them, but it’s Cooper’s stage antics as Jackson (ragged guitar solos and all) that give this movie its rambling, shambling dangerousness. And while it’s Gaga who provides the raw musical talent, the one who opens up from ugly duckling to swan while offering up her soul, it’s Cooper who provides the true-blue heart.

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