A Star is Born: music still sweet 81 years later


In Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born,” Bobby Maine (Sam Elliott) recalls something his younger brother, the co-leading Jackson Maine (Cooper), once said about the repetitive structure of music: “Just 12 notes repeated. It’s the same story told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer the world is how they see those 12 notes.”

It’s a powerful line in the context of the film, but it also offers a metatextual comment on the history of “A Star Is Born,” a bonafide Hollywood tradition. The 2018 version of “A Star Is Born” is the fourth telling of the story. The original was released in 1937, a remake starring Judy Garland was a critical and commercial success in 1954, and a Barbara Streisand-led version in 1976 topped the box office and sold a lucrative amount of soundtrack records, despite being disparaged by critics.

Each version focuses on a classic, fairytale-esque story: a female artist is elevated to stardom in part by a veteran male star who is in battle with personal demons. All three of the previous films have stuck to the structure with loyalty, but in 2018, 42 years after the last iteration, Cooper sees those notes a bit differently.

Cooper, a four-time Academy Award nominee, helms the movie in more ways than one—producing, writing, directing and starring. His take on the narrative shifts from the main thematic focus of the previous three toward a story more intimate and personal.

Each earlier iteration told a story condemning the ills of the industry. Cooper acknowledges that theme, but it is not his primary focus. He’s interested in how two artists, grizzled country crooner Jackson Maine (Cooper) and struggling singer Ally (Lady Gaga) find inspiration and heartbreak in each other’s creativity. We see plenty of interiority in both artists’ lives, but it’s when they perform that they truly spring to life.

Cooper, playing an alcoholic, walks like a zombie when he’s not on stage. When he steps out in front of a crowd, however, we see him in a tight close-up, electrifying a stadium. The same is true for Ally, who is unsure of her dream when she is struggling as a waitress, but is never more certain when performing. The cinematography, done by Matthew Libatique, puts Cooper and Gaga in front of a wide angle lens with the camera right in their face. They look like giants on the screen, an appearance apt for their superstar status.

The story Cooper directs, wrought with melodrama, tragedy and intimacy, is not a story of entertainers falling prey to the industry. It is a story of two artists finding a creative spark within one another. Both Cooper and Gaga give honest, endearing performances. They turn the characters from generic templates into people we know or even hope to be. The ups and downs of their relationship are driven not by the monsters of the music industry but by the beliefs and desires of their own selves. It makes the story less cosmic, these are not star-crossed lovers, but more real and vital. It has a beating heart that races when the two-step on stage together, and a beating heart that breaks at great tragedy.

“A Star Is Born” will deservedly be an Oscar frontrunner. Only three films have ever won all five of the major Academy Award categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay), the last being The Silence of the Lambs (1991). “A Star is Born” has a shot at being the first to achieve the landmark since then. It has the critical and commercial buzz, garnering praise from reviews and opening to $42 million at the box office.

The film’s title refers to Lady Gaga’s character in the movie, but it might as well refer to Gaga and Cooper. Both have been massive stars in their own right, but never before in these roles with Gaga acting and Cooper directing. They’re stars worth seeing born.

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