In the first round of Oscar-tipped movies to be released since the fall of Harvey Weinstein, there’s a lot of pressure for actors, directors and their films to “say something”. While the black dresses and defiant speeches of 2018 were a necessary and reactive protest, Hollywood bigwigs have now had a year to reckon with the anger, to attempt to right some of the wrongs and create a seismic shift. What have they done with it?
Perhaps unfortunately for Bradley Cooper, his directorial debut – another remake of the 1937 film A Star Is Born – was first conceptualised in 2011 under the eye of Clint Eastwood, so lacks any sort of message about sexual assault or damaging power structures. But then Eastwood dropped it, leaving Cooper to pick up not only the starring role, but also a share of the writing and the director’s cap. And – somewhat surprisingly, when it seems like everything we consume has a political edge – it’s better for it. A breath of fresh air from a claustrophobic slew of content, each of which apparently spawns its own think piece.
Yet, here I am, writing my own think piece about this film I can’t get out of my head. I’ve listened to Shallow, the only song that has been available from the soundtrack (until today), approximately 56 times. I’ve watched every single version of the trailer, twice. Every time someone mentions the film, a different film or even just the word “cinema”, I jump on them with the fervour of someone whose livelihood depends on the film’s box-office ratings. “I’ve seen it! It’s brilliant! You should definitely go and see it!” I screech at them, whether they ask for my opinion or not. That’s what I’m doing here now, to you. Stay with me.
So, what makes a film that has nothing to say worth talking about? Is it the story? Unlikely, as this is the fourth iteration of A Star Is Born, the first having been made in 1937. The second A Star Is Born turned the movie into a musical, starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. So, while the story is gripping and feels up to date, it is one crawling with clichés we’ve seen before.
Or is it the actors? In the case of A Star Is Born, absolutely. While it might be disingenuous to Cooper to say that Gaga carries this film, she certainly picks it up and throws it over the finishing line. As Ally, she starts off as a waitress, singing French songs at a drag club, before shooting into the heady world of live television performances, dance rehearsals and dying your hair Ziggy Stardust orange. Once you’ve seen Gaga, it’s hard to imagine Beyoncé – who was originally due to play Ally in Eastwood’s version – carrying off the same performance, and we all know Beyoncé can do anything.
It’s an intimate portrait of an imperfect love on the grandest of scales, making both parties relatable, vulnerable and flawed
Cooper would be unrecognisable as the gravelly voiced Jackson Maine if his face wasn’t so bloody familiar. Unlike Ally, who goes through a very visceral and vivid transformation, Maine’s narrative swings slowly, pendulum-like, between loving mentor and boyfriend to drug- and alcohol-dependent rock star with no regard for anyone but himself. Again, clichés, yet he still manages to surprise you.
Because, after the year we’ve had and the terrible men we’ve spoken about, Jackson Maine fits the mould all too well. He makes inappropriate jokes, often says the wrong thing and loses his temper sometimes – but, if we’re honest with ourselves, so do we all. Ally loves Maine – wholeheartedly, forcefully – even when she probably should cut her losses. It’s an intimate portrait of an imperfect love on the grandest of scales, making both parties relatable, vulnerable and flawed. There’s probably a subtextual reference to the horrors of fame and materialism hidden in A Star Is Born, but it’s undetectable in the shadow of Ally and Maine’s romance. Though, be warned, this is not Mamma Mia 3. Ally and Maine’s story is serious, dark and the stakes are high, if not dangerous.
So, no, A Star Is Born doesn’t really “say” anything. It doesn’t really “mean” anything. It’s a movie. A great, big, stonking, sweeping movie – with songs. Nothing less, nothing more. In the current climate – of which I’m sure both Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper have some thoughts – it almost feels brave to make such a standalone, non-committal film. As recent controversies demonstrate, A Star Is Born can’t exist in a vacuum. But, for two hours and 15 minutes, you can. And it’s glorious.