Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Catch-Up Watch: A Star is Born (2018)

Watched:  11/21/2021
Format:  HBOmax
Viewing:  First
Decade:  2010's
Director:  Bradley Cooper

I wanted to see A Star is Born (2018) in the theater so I could get the benefit of the theatrical sound for the music and sound mix, but I didn't.  My memory of the release date is pegged to a lengthy work-trip.  On a terrible tip from a bus driver - I found myself in the shittiest bar in Vegas, trying to get some karaoke together with librarians, but only me and three other people showed up.  That night was the first time I think I heard "Shallow" from beginning to end, and I couldn't believe the song was already an option at karaoke as the film had just been released.

Anyway, that was a very long two week business trip, and that was only one of three dozen incidents along the way (I got shingles in Salt Lake City).  When I got home, Jamie had seen the movie and I decided to wait for home video.  And then didn't do that, either.

I did eventually want to get to it.  Aside from feeling like I should see the movie here in it's fourth iteration, I think Bradley Cooper is a very solid actor who gets dismissed because he's ridiculously handsome.  And I like Lady Gaga as a performer because *gestures at everything*.  Plus, I found it interesting this was Cooper's choice for a directorial debut.  Which makes sense.

Look, A Star is Born is maybe one of the most well-trod stories in movie-making, with four versions:  1937, 1954, 1976 and now in 2018.  It's also been ripped off and has echoes in a thousand films - fiction, non-fiction and based on real events - about addiction, alcoholism and stardom.   But it is full of things for an actor to *do*.  And Cooper and Germanotta do them very, very well.  The movie lives between drama and melodrama, and so they get to play budding romance, genuine love, inner demons, scenes of personal horror... and it's all rooted in reality.  No space monsters, no battles for magical rings.  The greatest challenge of this version is Cooper having to figure out singing and adopting Sam Elliot's voice.  

It's *fascinating* that Cooper lost to Malek for Bohemian Rhapsody, which follows a much greater span of time with another musician fighting demons.  (Not to mention the low-key irony of Gaga taking her name from Queen's 'Radio Gaga".)  Look, this movie is much smaller in scale - but it's the better film. 

While the movie doesn't qualify as a musical, exactly, I was not anticipating that the songs and performances would do what songs do in a musical - and that's reflect or continue the moment in the story as a character moment.  I figured the songs would be whatever songs they happened to write for the film, but they're doing a lot of lifting, and not in a bad way.

I have no issues with this A Star is Born.  No notes.  The biggest challenge it has to overcome is that the storyline of the prior three versions are famous (no, I haven't seen them, but I've known them since wikipedia because they get references so often) and echoed.  And, so, plotwise - you kind of know this is going to end in tragedy and heartbreak before it ever gets started.  And you're kind of waiting for some beats to play out that only have so many directions to go.  That was something I figured on going in.

This film combines elements of the three prior versions, but feels modern.  Cooper's access to locations like SNL, complete with Alec Baldwin hosting, all feels very *now*, which is a feature, not a bug.  There's a certain level of verisimilitude that grounds the characters but also very much understands the world and levels of stardom and megastardom that allows the story to fill in gaps that send cues to the audience without clunky exposition.  The dialog isn't Altman-esque, but we do feel like we're really getting snapshots of the two over the duration of the film - Cooper doing an amazing job of framing the sequences and working with the sound department to handle audio as his character's hearing is slipping, providing muddled sound as he's drunk and/ or in crowd scenes versus the clarity of audio when its just him and Ally (and certainly in the rehab sequence).

Anyway - it's not like the movie wasn't well liked when it came out.  Not everyone adored it, and it has some challenges, but like putting on a well-known play, Cooper stays within the boundaries of what the film is intended to be while also getting a lot out of all his players - including some surprise casting, from Andrew Dice Clay as Ally's father (this seems like a great spot for him), Dave Chapelle as a good friend Cooper's character can see as a model, Sam Elliot playing something other than "Sam Elliot", a pre-In the Heights appearance by Hamilton vet Anthony Ramos, and a handful of others.

The framing of Ally/ Germanotta is interesting.  I did figure out watching the movie - she's only 5'1", a full foot shorter than Cooper.  So there's some challenges there.  And her go-to move in the movie is to throw her arms around him.  But the eye of the camera is that of adoration (and avoids objectification) - seeing Ally as Cooper's character sees her, and it's powerful for building sympathy for the characters.  In general, the film has a good idea what love looks like versus "love" in meet-cute rom-coms.

This isn't, obviously, the kind of stuff I always reach for when I'm picking a movie, but I was glad to have finally seen it.  For a first directing gig, Cooper seemed like a veteran, and I'm very curious to see what he picks up next. 

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