Most people I’ve spoken with think that the 1976 version with Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson was the first version but it was actually the third. The first version was made in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Frederick March and directed by William Wellman (Nothing Sacred, Beau Geste). The now classic second version was made in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason and directed by George Cukor. (Gone With The Wind, The Philadelphia Story). The third version with Streisand and Kristofferson was directed by Frank Pierson and was nominated for 5 Academy Awards, winning 1 for Best Song for songwriters Streisand and Paul Williams.
The first two versions were set in the film world while the third and current version inhabit the music world. When I first heard that Bradley Cooper had decided to make his directorial debut by doing another remake of A Star Is Born I was not enthused. Why? But I liked the trailer and I think Cooper is serious about his work so I went to see it. I was impressed. Cooper and his team have crafted a beautifully moving film. It is an amazing achievement.
The story is a simple and familiar one. Famous singer on an alcoholic downward spiral meets and falls in love with a woman who has a great talent. He encourages her to follow her dreams and soon she becomes a star on the rise while his star fades. He gets worse and worse and starts dragging her down but their love keeps them together and they strive to make it work. Suffice it to say, it does not end well. It’s a tried and true tale so it takes some imagination to find ways to make it new. Cooper finds the ways.
Anyone can put together two good looking stars, a few songs and this story and make a decent hit but as I said before, why? Cooper took his time and aimed higher. He brought in Lady Gaga to star and write songs. He also co-wrote some of the songs. He got Eric Roth and Will Fetters to assist him with the script. He brought in Lukas Nelson (Willie Nelson’s son) to co-write the songs and perform with his band in the film as his character’s band. He made some interesting casting choices with Sam Elliot as his older brother/manager, Dave Chappelle as one of his best friends and Andrew Dice Clay as Gaga’s dad and they all pay off.
Cooper wanted to make a love story. A love story about two creative people and the difficulties of remaining true to oneself in this modern crazy world. He was also aiming to show genuine vulnerabilities, honest emotion and soulfulness. He gets it. Cooper takes his time in the first half of the film to show Jackson Maine (Cooper) and Ally (Lady Gaga) meet and fall in love. Cooper and Gaga have great chemistry in these scenes and then later onstage performing together. It’s very powerful. He gets strong heartfelt performances from Elliot, Chappelle and Clay. The concert scenes are exciting and electric and always focused on Cooper and Gaga’s relationship. The songs are emotional, memorable and heartbreaking. Even though the film is tragic (I admit I cried) there was still plenty of humor and smiles.
This is Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut and he nails it. You can see the influences of his mentors David O Russell and Clint Eastwood. He fleshes out scenes between characters that feel natural and genuine like O Russell. He also knows when to pull back and not get too complicated with a scene like Eastwood. You can also see the influence of the best 70s films, wide shots, extreme close ups a la Cassavetes and sad inevitability. One of my favorite moments is between Cooper and Elliot in a car. Jackson tells his brother why his ‘stole’ his voice. It wasn’t their father he idolized but him. Elliot doesn’t say anything and just starts to back the car out of the driveway. He looks back and you see tears in his eyes. It got me. It was simple and not mushy. It felt real.
This is not a ‘chick flick’. This is a tragic romance. This is a fine film. It’s the best film of the year so far.