They say there are only a handful of original stories in Hollywood, which may explain the trend for remakes, reboots, and revivals. And now we have the third remake of the classic love story A Star is Born, first made in 1937 as a non-musical with Janet Gaynor and Frederic March. That film was remade in Hollywood’s musical heyday in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason and is a beloved classic. Another musical version came around in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, became the third highest-grossing film of the year, and introduced the world to the eventual Oscar winning tune “Evergreen.” The movie is fine, but it’s curiously more dated (as are most movies from the 1970s) than the 1950s version. So with three versions of the story under Hollywood’s belt, is there any reason for another one?
In this case, the answer would be a resounding yes.
If you’re unfamiliar with the basics of the story, Bradley Cooper plays Jackson Maine (Norman in the first two movies, and John Norman Howard in the third), a popular country-rockabilly singer struggling not only with some acute hearing loss, but drugs and alcohol as well. One night after a concert, he stumbles into a bar (a forward-thinking drag bar in this case) and witnesses a performance of “La Vie en Rose” by Ally (Gaga), a real girl with an amazing voice. Immediately smitten with her, Jackson insists she attend his next concert after hearing a bit of one of her own songs. She refuses because she has a job, but one harsh word from her boss sends her back out the door and onto a private plane, arriving just as the concert was starting. And she does get pulled on stage, and she fries everyone’s brains with her talent. She and Jackson marry, quickly, but she begins to eclipse him and all of his old demons and insecurities come out of hiding, putting a strain on their lives. But can they, or really he, overcome Ally’s growing fame? If you’ve seen any of the other versions, you know the answer but we won’t spoil anything here for the uninitiated.
I’ve never seen the original film, but I have seen the two previous remakes and the Garland version stands the test of time. The new version, however, may rival that one as it is quickly becoming a modern classic. Plain and simple. A Star is Born is a tale as old as Hollywood itself, but in Bradley Cooper’s directorial hands (and he co-wrote the screenplay) it becomes a new and vibrant story. What makes this version so essential is that it feels like you’re watching real people. As my screening companion with limited sight said after the movie, it sounded like real people having real conversations, not actors reciting lines of dialog. And she was right. Cooper and Gaga are so good together, that you can’t help falling in love with them as quickly as the characters fall in love on screen. From the minute he sees her sing in the bar, you are rooting for them to be together.
Cooper is terrific as Jackson, totally inhabiting the role, deepening his voice a bit and belting out songs like nobody’s business. Jackson is not a character that’s easy to love as he jumps on and falls off the wagon time and again, but when he’s sober you really hope it sticks. When Ally’s star begins to rise, Cooper’s reaction is very subtle but you can still sense Jackson’s envy because he knows with his hearing issues, his clock is winding down.
Lady Gaga is simply … wow. She was terrific on American Horror Story: Hotel once she had a couple of episodes under her belt, and there she was able to play up her Lady Gaga image, but she sets the screen on fire with her feature film debut because she doesn’t have that persona we all know to fall back on. Here she is raw, vulnerable, insecure, and if you’ve ever seen old videos of her early days singing in bars, Ally is more Stephanie Germanotta than Lady Gaga. But she’s pure and innocent as well, but not naive enough to think this encounter with Jackson wasn’t more than a one-night thing. Until he relentlessly pursues her and she finally gives in, but cautiously. And when she sings, her voice will make your heart swell. In the 1954 version, Judy Garland gives a masterful performance but you see Judy Garland. Streisand is Streisand in the 1976 version, and it’s hard to accept her as the insecure woman her character is supposed to be. Here you don’t see Lady Gaga, you see Ally. Whether Gaga’s performance came naturally or if it was coaxed along by Cooper’s acting and directing, I don’t know but it doesn’t matter because she’s superb. It seems almost unfathomable to think of Beyoncé in that role, which almost happened (with Leo DiCaprio, Christian Bale, and Tom Cruise all in line for the role that eventually went to Cooper).
And speaking of coaxing great performances out of people, there are some folks in the cast you may not think of as either actors or dramatic actors. At the bar, two of the featured drag queens are “RuPaul’s Drag Race” stars Shangela and Willam, and they both give really nice performances. Willam is the campier of the two, but they are both terrific and Shangela really served up some real reactions to what was going on around her without any dialog. Comedian Eddie Griffin pops up in a very small role, but two people you may not expect to be good at drama, Andrew Dice Clay and Dave Chappelle, also give some remarkable performances. To be surprised by them is a testament both to their talents and Cooper’s skill as a director. Some actors are noticeably better with a good director and this proves Cooper has what it takes to continue on this path. And we can’t forget Sam Elliott as Jackson’s road manager, futilely attempting to get his boss to tend to his health issues. He is pretty much that gruff Sam Elliott we all know but he softens a bit as more of his character’s story is revealed.
The music in A Star is Born is excellent, even Ally’s somewhat cheesy pop hit is catchy (something about “That ass in those jeans”). Gaga insisted they both sing live and you can definitely tell you’re hearing the real thing and not something over-produced after the fact that they’re lip syncing to. And if you have the option to see A Star is Born in a Dolby Theater, take that option just for the concert scenes alone that make you feel like you’re right in the middle of the action.
With a heartfelt script, great music, solid direction, and two amazing performances surrounded by a cast of real pros, this new addition to the catalog of A Star is Born remakes will go down as one for the ages.