It’s all about Who You Nose.
We may not be known as The Greatest Generation, but this fourth filmic iteration of A STAR IS BORN, for our generation, is surely the greatest. 42 years after the 1976 version, Bradley Cooper co-writes the movie, directs, stars, plays guitar, plays piano, sings, co-writes the songs, and co-produces…
A STAR IS BORN all right – Bradley Cooper!
Passion bleeds off the screen in this scintillating, vibrant telling of a talented young singer (Lady Gaga) who finds herself on the pathway to stardom after she is discovered by a road-weary veteran rock star (Cooper) on the decline.
Movie grabs us by the pussy in its first frames as it opens onstage with Jackson Maine (Cooper) flailing at his guitar in wild abandon. Cooper’s got the weather-beaten look of a road dog; he’s got the untucked street clothes, the Eddie Vedder hairdo (which implies tortured artiste), and a playing style that makes us believe he was never classically trained, but schooled on the streets. (According to a guitarist friend of mine, his acoustic playing looks fine, but his lead guitarwork just plain sucks!) He bangs on a single bent note over and over (using a completely incorrect technique!), then launches into a righteous rock riff (Black Eyes) – and his vocals ain’t half bad!
The first thing we notice: That’s a real stage and those are real musicians backing Cooper (Lukas Nelson – Willie’s son – and his band, Promise Of The Real). And the key emotion that washes over us: Man, this shit is LEGIT!
We meet Ally (Gaga) in a waiter’s job, rushing to her gig at a drag bar. If the rock gig is legit (take my word for it!), then so is the drag bar (uh, just take my word for it…).
a bad state of mind
Jackson exits the stage after the gig, the roaring fans crowd him, he pushes past them into his limo, the doors slam shut – silence – he hunches over, head low under his cowboy hat, twisting open a Jack Daniels – while his tinnitus fills the silence! This movie just keeps getting more legit! Jackson is like a continuance of Jeff Bridges’s Bad Blake in CRAZY HEART. And he talks like Sam Elliott just waking up in the morning! Can it GET any more legit?! Through his haze, Jackson asks his driver (a That-Guy whom we’ve seen everywhere, but can’t place – Greg Grunberg) to stop at a club for more alcohol. There he crosses paths with Ally, singing La Vie En Rose (a song an impressed Cooper saw Gaga perform at a cancer benefit years earlier).
agog over gaga
And Lady Gaga is a revelation! Firstly, she is down-to-Earth gorgeous! With her big nose and sleepy eyes and her brown hair unstructured and mussed, wearing t-shirts and jeans, her body not the regular Hollywood Hot-Abs, but almost frumpy, like a regular person you’d see walking around Ralphs. Yet hotter than she’s ever looked in any of her stupid stage costumes or with that platinum hair styled to look as plastic as possible; no disease-blue eye-shadow or Egyptian lipstick or glittery evening gown with half her tit hanging out – just unspoiled natural beauty! With such searing desirability au naturale, one wonders why she insists on making herself look ugly for her public. Like her character here, is there some deep-rooted insecurity chasing Stefani Germanotta?
Secondly, in her first movie role, her acting is stupendous! The scene that won me was The Nose Touch: When they meet, Ally mentions her nose being too big as an impediment to gaining fame, and Jackson asks if he could touch it. Her reaction is so human, so funny, so endearing that she could do no wrong for the next two hours. As if in answer to my question about her insecurity, Gaga acknowledges in a November 2018 Newsweek interview: “I ran from Stefani for a long time. I put on a superhero cape and called myself Lady Gaga. [Bradley] challenged me to deep dive into a place where I had to see her again, be Stefani again.” (And Ally sings, “We’re far from the shallows now…”)
And Gaga’s vocal expertise need not even be broached – she’s a ringer. As Cooper says in interviews: “The whole production had to rise to her level.” Being a true superstar (she’s more famous in real life than anyone in this production) makes Gaga’s performance as a neophyte that much more profound and touching; she had to bring forth on the screen what it was like to be that shy and fun and open-hearted again. And we know Lady Gaga has long lost that naiveté, at least since the first time she exposed half her tit on a red carpet…
Smitten by Ally’s voice and inner and outer beauty, Jackson takes her on an impromptu night-long talk-date, and – in a movie where every song is introspective and every singer has something to say – they don’t just small-talk and fuck, but get deep into each other’s souls. Throughout the film, we feel the electric chemistry between Jackson and Ally. Jackson: “Talent comes everywhere, but having something to say, and a way to say it so that people listen to it – that’s a whole other bag.” Ally sings softly: “Tell me something, boy / Aren’t you tired trying to fill that void?” (Told you every song was introspective. Almost annoyingly so.) It would be schmaltzy if it weren’t played so damn realistically. Helmed by Cooper as director and co-writer, with co-writers Eric Roth and Will Fetters, there are many reasons this remake has modernized so well: these two characters can be this artsy around each other because they are artists. Cooper and Co. have opted to follow the 1976 version of this movie in casting the leads as musicians, keeping all the music diagetic (meaning the source music issues from what is represented onscreen, and is also integral to the action/plot; no one just breaks into song for no reason with an unseen orchestra chiming in [cough – Dean Martin]). Thus, what might have come across as syrupy Meet Cute in another movie, comes across here as, well – LEGIT!
Then – whoa! – Sam Elliott himself (!) as Jackson’s older brother Bobby, head of the road crew, a solid presence that grounds Jackson’s alcoholic wastrel. (Now why didn’t we see that before? We always knew Elliott made a great rugged Cowboy – but those qualities also embody the perfect road-weary Roadie!) Bobby is part of Jackson’s considerable backstory – unlike the male character in the previous versions of the film. In one of the film’s best moments, Jackson, after years of claiming he idolized their father, while belittling Bobby, would admit to Bobby that he actually idolized him. The few seconds left onscreen showing Bobby backing out of the driveway, Elliott pulls some of the greatest acting you will ever see! One of those moments that causes you to ask yourself, “Where do actors GO in their heads to achieve these closeups that skip our styluses?”
Ally’s father – Is that The Diceman? Cantankerous, name-dropping, playing a chauffeur in a gaggle of familial chauffeurs, Andrew Dice Clay impresses with his solid personification of a doting single parent. Hickory dickory fact – Who knew this prick could act? –OH!
Dice isn’t the only comedian playing it straight here: Dave Chappelle! He’s Jackson’s musician buddy who settled down. No more Rick James, bitch!
a name evolution
For the sake of keeping it real in all eras, the characters and their names have morphed slightly over the years in every version of A STAR IS BORN, as societal tastes changed:
1937 | Janet Gaynor as Esther Blodgett aka Vicki Lester – actor | Frederic March as Norman Maine – actor
1954 | Judy Garland as Esther Blodgett aka Vicki Lester – singer | James Mason as Norman Maine – actor
1976 | Barbra Streisand as Esther Hoffman – singer | Kris Kristofferson as John Norman Howard – rock star
2018 | Lady Gaga as Ally – singer | Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine – rock star
a musician’s ear
From a musician’s point of view, there’s something so cool about seeing a stage that’s set up right; something so calming seeing musicians miming correctly; in one second we take in the monitor guy placed correctly behind his desk side-stage, stage lighting on trusses, amps, mics, road cases, crew – a place and reason for everything, and everything in its place for a reason… and no one looks like they’re trying hard to pretend to hold a fucking guitar chord – those clustered finger-shapes on the fretboards of their guitars that give them away immediately as civilians…
… and surely, I would discover that these are real musicians (Lukas Nelson’s band) and those are real functioning stages: the live segments were filmed before actual crowds at the Glastonbury and Stagecoach festivals. Real singing. Real playing. On real stages. And there are different mixes for all the different environments they are in. This little point, so subtle, yet so meaningful, might not matter to anyone except musicians…
Here’s the most amazing thing: Bradley Cooper is not a musician! Yet he does almost no wrong to musician viewers with his movie! He had to learn to play three instruments: voice, guitar and piano – and he captures on camera the parts that sound and look cool and the other parts are swept up in the purple haze of mimed performance. It’s very well done. Yes, there are tiny errors that musicians will catch, but nothing glaring. Bottom-line is: Musicians can relax and enjoy this version of A STAR IS BORN for its story, grounded nonchalantly in the music milieu, rather than having our chests tighten every time the movie goes near something “musical,” knowing it’s going to be misrepresented (cough-BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY).
an aronofsky shoulder
If Cooper emulates Bad Blake/Sam Elliott for his character, then he follows in the over-the-shoulder footsteps of Darren Aronofsky for his directorial style. Most of the film is shot from Ally’s point of view, as evidenced clearly in one unbroken take, following her from a limo all the way through the backstage area to the stage itself; and Jackson’s under-the-clavicle shots keep him bathed in rockstar limelight.
Jackson’s belief in Ally is touching as he cajoles her onstage for the first time; and we are right there with her, seeing the audience through her eyes; seeing Jackson’s pride and pleasant amazement as she takes to the mic to belt out her parking lot song that he had put to music: The Shallow, her lyrics reflecting this very moment: “I’m off the deep end / Watch as I dive in…”
It’s the YouTube age, so Ally is immediately on social media the next day. Now the hassle with copyrights and publishing begins. You can’t just throw an original song into the world and not protect it, otherwise how would you make money off it? An aspect of the music industry that is never addressed here…
Profanity-laced, A STAR IS BORN pulls no punches on swearing, alcoholism, sex or drugs. Speaking of drugs, Jackson gets an injection of steroids for his voice, to stop the swelling in his vocal cords. I feel you, man! Not many fans will notice these quick few seconds, showing him tweaking his pants down past that oblique muscle (what my sister calls “the bone”) to get injected in the butt, just to show off his sexy abs. I usually get the shot in my deltoid to show off my sexy biceps.
And by the way, Brad, one does not generally do a hearing test shirtless.
a star is porn
Ally gets that big break. A well-known manager (Rafi Gavron) offers to make her more than just an appendage to Jackson, promising her “whatever you want, I can do it for you.” And, as already stated, there is zero focus on the business side of the industry, so when this First Manager does shepherd Ally to the big time, we are not meant to question whether he might harbor ulterior motives to rip off this neophyte artist’s publishing/ merch/ intellectual properties, etc. (he doesn’t); and we take it for granted that any First Manager of a New Artist can actually secure record deals, TV appearances and Grammy nominations (Making It Made Easy)…
For her SNL appearance (the logistics alone are incredible in recreating the full studio set with audience, band – and Alec Baldwin as host! – but then, it’s easy to get Alec Baldwin for SNL – he just lives under the floorboards there these days), the record company give her a makeover (ostensibly to make her look as desirable as possible, yet make her look as ugly as possible), force choreography and two backing dancers onto her (Gaga’s actual backing dancers), and write a dubiously faddish song for her to perform. She has been molded into a cheap Britney knockoff. Jackson looks on from sidestage, disappointment wracking his face. It’s not because she’s getting more famous than him; it’s because she’s selling her soul to get famous. (This was, in fact, the theme of the very first 1937 A STAR IS BORN, where the movie studio molded the smalltown girl into a bankable Hollywood commodity.)
Jackson chides her cheap lyrics: “’Don’t bring dat ass up in here’?” At first I thought the filmmakers were portraying him as jealous and possessive Pygmalion; not wanting to lose his possession to the masses – but no! He genuinely did not want Ally selling out to mediocrity. (And stop coloring your hair like you have a jungle disease, woman!)
an orbison walkdown
Jack talked about how music is essentially twelve notes between any octave. Twelve notes and the octave repeats. It’s the same story told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer the world is how they see those twelve notes.
— Bobby (Sam Elliott), A STAR IS BORN
Like a Mandelbrot Set, like a metaphor for our lives; as we grow older, we repeat, and we repeat, the same victories, the same mistakes… the same chord patterns…
Ally is nominated for 3 Grammys and Jackson is slated to perform at the event, playing and singing Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman. Jackson gets bent to the point of passing out in public, embarrassing Ally receiving her Best New Artist award. Probably because he suddenly realized, “Uh-oh, now I’ve got to pay publishing to the Orbison Estate!” – because The Shallow is basically Pretty Woman!
“I’m off the deep end / Watch as I dive in / I’ll never hit the ground…” That descending figure (Am – D/F# – G – D/F# – Em) is the same one under: “Pretty woman, stop awhile / Pretty woman, talk while/ Pretty woman, give your smile to me…”
We wonder whether this was the reason Orbison was chosen as an artist to honor in the first place – as a wink and nod to viewers who can pick that chord progression; I mean, for no particular reason, a supergroup of musicians pays tribute to Orbison, who has been out of the limelight for ages?
Damn those 12 notes…
a kurosawa death
When Jackson makes a scene at Ally’s win, it is not to feed his own ego (like the other versions of this film imply), but because he was battling his own demons. I like that distinction in this version; it takes the focus off him being a “villain” or “antagonist.” Another aspect I like is that when Jackson visits Alcoholics Anonymous, the filmmakers allow the institution to heal Jackson in small ways (he finds the heart to confess to his brother and apologize to those he’s wronged), yet is a waste of time as an overall “cure.”
Movie unabashedly adopts the stance of the Alcoholics’ Credo: “An alcoholic is always between drinks.” Thus, Jackson realizes that for the sake of not destroying his beloved star on the rise, he has to destroy the damaged one on the decline. The only honorable way out.
Ally’s last solo tribute song is quite laughably cliché in structure, lyrics, production, giant reverb 80’s drums, even a string section sliding in, but Cooper the director pulls us back from the edge of laughing out loud, by cutting to a flashback scene of him playing the piano haltingly and singing this song to Ally – which is the true beauty of any song: one instrument, one voice. Okay, Bradley – you win, you legit son of a bitch.
Cooper tells us that when Ally looks directly at the camera after her final song – “that’s when the star is born.” Respectfully disagree, Bradley. The star was born when you signed on to do this movie.