A Star is Born (2018)

I was almost an hour into A Star is Born when I realized Oscar Season had truly started, because it was then that a very familiar, mildly unpleasant feeling washed over me: I was pressured into watching a competently made, exceptionally performed 3-star drama opening weekend because of its value in the discourse, not because I was especially excited to see it. This fourth iteration of the classic Hollywood tale of fame, jealousy, and tragic romance is a decent movie packed with great performances, one that’s destined to sour in audiences’ collective memory as it’s over-praised in the next four months of Oscars lead-up. Great effort will be made to land Lady Gaga a (perhaps deserved) Academy Award for Best Actress and Bradley Cooper a (not at all deserved) Best Director statue; and the best possible outcome in either case is that they fall just short of winning, so that they don’t suffer significant critical blowback for being overdiscussed & overexamined. Frankly, I find this stretch of the cinematic year to be the most exhausting & unfulfilling, a feeling that hit me about halfway into this totally okay, already overpraised melodrama.

Whether you’ve seen this story play out before with Barbara Streisand, Judy Garland, or (if you’re a thousand years old) Janet Gaynor in the lead, the basic narrative structure of A Star is Born is too familiar to require recounting in a review. The most interesting creative decision Bradly Cooper makes as this version’s auteurist voice is in acknowledging that familiarity by allowing his players to color as freely as they wish within those lines. The entire film boasts an improv looseness in its performances, which are freed up by the rigid structure of its narrative to search for tossed-off, believably natural tones. Drunken (and deliberately unflattering) conversations between Cooper & Gaga’s leads in the film’s early, pre-fame stretch are especially impressive in their immediacy & cavalier looseness. Domestic home life exchanges of overlapping dialogue lovingly shouted between Gaga & Andrew Dice Clay (playing Gaga’s father) also land with a pleasant naturalism, even recalling the similar home life snapshots of the Oscar-winning Cher classic Moonstruck. Unfortunately, that exceptional-performances-contained-by-an-unexceptional-premise dynamic wears thin by the time the film demands that you emotionally commit to its melodrama, especially when Cooper pretends he has something useful to say about that authenticity instead of just letting it be.

Part of the reason I could already feel myself getting exhausted with Oscar Season discourse halfway into A Star is Born is that I was preemptively starting to have very strong, negative takes on how it handles its music industry subject matter, where the material isn’t distinct or daring enough to support that passionate of a reaction. I found the dichotomy Cooper establishes between meaningful, “Authentic” rock-country Americana vs. supposedly frivolous, high-gloss pop music to be gross, especially since the gruff nostalgia & macho guitar noodling that was supposed to stand for good, Authentic art is not at all my cup of tea. Lady Gaga’s drag bar Edith Piaf covers & high-production SNL performances of pop songs about butts struck me as far superior art when compared to the singer-songwriter ballads Cooper’s character “elevates” her to when they collab as a romantic & creative couple, which is the exact opposite of what the film was attempting to convey. I could feel myself getting increasingly angry with the movie’s macho, old-fashioned attacks on the high-gloss, traditionally femme corners of pop music (where Gaga cut her teeth as a performer in real life) for being in-Authentic, until I had a post-screening epiphany: it ultimately doesn’t matter. The movie is too modest in its artistic goals & achievements to justify any real, substantial umbrage; I was just forming a strong take on the subject because of its Importance in the discourse.

Someone with a much kinder ear for the proto-country Dad-rock Cooper & Gaga perform as a duo in the film will likely have a much easier time swallowing its attacks on the Authenticity of high-gloss pop music than I did. Even if not, the improv looseness of the film’s early, pre-popshaming stretch (including brief appearances from RuPaul’s Drag Race vets Shangela & Willam) is infectiously charming, enough so that it carries the film though much of its second-half rough patches. It’s just much easier to enjoy the film for those performance-specific touches once you divorce it from the context of Oscars talk. A Star is Born is a good movie boosted by excellent performances, but also one hindered by more than a few thematic disappointments (the pop music patronizing is where I personally fixated & soured, but there’s plenty more grossness to pick at elsewhere). The more it’s lauded as the cinematic achievement of the year, something that absolutely must be seen by all, the worse its memory will fare in the ether. That is, until this year’s Oscars statues are doled out and the merits of the performances are all we remember. And then the whole cycle starts over again next October, if not earlier, with the first high-profile melodrama of the Fall. Honestly, I’m already a little tired of that movie too.

-Brandon Ledet

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