A Star Is Born
A film review
Posted Oct 08, 2018
The record shows that it usually takes about twenty years before a remake of "A Star Is Born" appears: 1937, 1954 and 1976.
The 1937 release, its first production (in Technicolor) starred Janet Gaynor, Frederic March, and Adolphe Menjou, and introduced Andy Devine. There was no singing and no dancing, simply a good old drama where one life blossoms while another dissipates. It was less than two hours, a feat not to be reproduced in the subsequent three renditions of A Star Is Born.
The 1954 release starred Judy Garland, James Mason, and Jack Carson. It was a Judy Garland concert embedded in a tragic love story, with Mason alternately doing a lot of enamored looking on or stumbling about drunk. It was a merciless 2 hours and 55 minutes. With an intermission. Black and white stills of the same characters intermixed with the moving picture, for aesthetic reasons beyond the likes of me.
In 1976, we had Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, with both actors singing their hearts out. Streisand’s voice back then could match any, including daring to replace the legendary Judy Garland. Each had a voice from heaven and the capacity to hold a note forever. This film was not only a musical, it was a fashion show as well – with both stars costumed to a fare thee well. The film was 2 hours and 20 minutes, 35 minutes of relief from the 1954 remake. While the earlier versions were dramatic, this one was melodramatic, overwrought. The final musical scene is more of a eulogy than a ballad.
The plots of all the three, earlier screenplays faithfully follow a crash and burn life from alcoholism (and later, also drugs) of a hugely successful male star who is imploding while he fires up the love and celebrity fame of an unknown, gifted, ingénue. March, Mason, and Kristofferson all get to deliver the same endearing line about wanting to have “one more look” at their beloved butterfly, whom they each respectively freed from their cocoons. That line, of course, reappears in the newest film.
Now, in 2018, over four decades later, at Oscar competition season, we have Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper as the singing stars. Cooper also directed the film, taking four arduous years to do so. There are no film studios in this one, though there is a broadside delivered against the predatory managers/producers who can dominate music stars. The ensemble also includes Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle, and Sam Elliott at his best. The runtime is 2 hours, 15 minutes, trimming a few minutes from its most recent, antecedent release. But it could have been shorter, tighter, more gripping. It takes time to sing all those tunes, I guess. But the tragic arc of the story remains the same.
Lady Gaga has emerged as a great songstress, mostly leaving behind her legacy as a performance artist. She writes many of the tunes in this film, and authentically renders the girl next door from an Italian middle-class family. She has become a wonderful ballad singer, with a fine, hugely expressive voice, style, and off-kilter beauty. Her artistic re-creation may have happened after her duets with Tony Bennett, which are beautiful. In today’s "A Star Is Born," we listen to her duets with Cooper, but her solo performances are the best.
A wonderful surprise is Bradley Cooper—who also wrote a number of the songs in the film—and whose voice is melodious and sweet. He also is a fine guitar player. A long way from his previous role and expertise as an American Sniper.
The music is modern yet largely ballads; not rock and roll as Kristofferson sang. The movie’s depiction of alcohol and drug addiction is very modern as well – with it explained as a disease, a chronic relapsing condition that often has both psychological antecedents and a brain pirated by substances. We witness a 12-Step meeting and a rehab center that is humane and supportive, unlike how it was represented in the Mason/Garland film.
Of all the four versions of "A Star Is Born," the 2018 one is the best, my favorite. It ends not in a eulogy, but rather a tribute. When love and song are combined, they make for a fabulous duet.