Forget the original, the 1937 A Star is Born, and consider only the remakes, all of them musicals. The 1954 version starred Judy Garland. The 1976 remake had Barbra Streisand. And this latest reincarnation, tenderly directed by Bradley Cooper, is toplined by Lady Gaga. The similarities extend beyond the plot, which is a cornball romance between a performer on her way up and her mentor, a performer on his way down. All three heroines aren’t what you’d call model-pretty — their faces have great character, evidence of a life lived beyond the greasepaint. And all three heroines are astounding, arena-filling singers pretending, on screen, to be women who are reluctant to sing outside the shower, or maybe the local pub. When Ally (Lady Gaga) tells Jackson (Cooper), “I don’t sing my own songs. I just don’t feel comfortable,” or when she has to be convinced to “perform” on stage, with platinum hair, I laughed. Has Ally not seen Lady Gaga’s live shows?
Cooper is an unabashed Old Hollywood lover, and he makes an unabashed stab at this material — which is why it works. It’s fun to see the hat tips. The earlier avatars of Ally were named Esther — it’s probably too old-fashioned a name today. But the leading men have always been faithful to the name of the character played first by Fredric March, and second by a fantastic James Mason: Norman Maine. In the 1976 version, the Kris Kristofferson character borrowed the first name (he was called John Norman Howard). Here, Jackson’s last name is Maine. Ally, too, gets a Judy Garland nod, when she gets out of work (at a restaurant) and heads home, humming, “When all the world is a hopeless jumble / And the raindrops tumble / All around.” Over these words from Garland’s most famous song, Over the rainbow, the title appears in lipstick red: A STAR IS BORN. Indeed.
If you discount the mobile phones and drag bars, there’s practically nothing here, narrative-wise, that we haven’t seen in the older versions. But the updates are in the mood, the sound, the retro feel. Matthew Libatique’s gorgeous cinematography — the grain, the harsh colours and close-ups, the naturalistic framing — harks back to the 1970s, as do Jackson’s songs, whose lyrics sound like confessional diary entries, the way they did in the songs of Dylan and Springsteen and Janis Joplin. This music, the film says, is sacred, pure. Ally sings this way too, a way that’s as much singing something as saying something. “What you say is the stuff of angels,” a besotted Jackson tells her — and we cut straight to Ally practising dance steps for a show.
This is the contrast A Star is Born sets up: old-fashioned singing from the soul, with just the band on the stage, is GOOD, and new-fangled mega-shows, with costume changes and backup dancers, are EVIL. I’m not sure I buy this too-easy dichotomy, but it imbues this film with a sentimentality that was not there in its predecessors, which only featured the songs of their respective eras. Here, Jackson is terrified that all this Britney-generation glitter will make Ally lose what makes her the talent she is. It’s not just about the slow death of the soul. It’s also the death of a way of songwriting and singing. The you-are-in-a-concert-hall sound effects amplify the punch-drunk openness of the music, so it bypasses the head and goes straight to the heart.
The scenes without songs are in a lower key. A beautiful stretch involving a proposal (and a guitar, though not in the way you might think) is like one of Jackson’s songs: unfussy, direct, incisive, completely effective. There’s an additional layer, here, of Jackson being in danger of losing his hearing (in the earlier films, the character was only a lush, which Jackson is too). Cooper acts wonderfully, channelling that sixties’ thing where we feel the self-destruction is what makes this music. And Lady Gaga is sensationally good. It’s only expected that she’s terrific in the singing scenes, but she is also able to face the camera real close without too much awkwardness (what little is there, adds to the character). The early scenes, where Jackson discovers Ally and hangs out with her, have a loose, let’s-see-what-happens vibe that’s closer to the Before Sunrise movies than this film’s previous versions. (This vibe didn’t exist then, and it’s also there in the superb scenes between Jackson and his brother, played by Sam Elliott.) It’s tonic to the narrative’s melodramatic gin.
Cooper, the director, keeps digging for the real moments under this ultra-Hollywoody story. When Jackson invites Ally to join him on stage, she hesitates, her knees buckle — and he holds her. “All you gotta do is trust me,” he says. I haven’t seen an actor give such an emotionally open performance in a long time. (It’s another way this film is old-style. Wearing one’s heart on the sleeve is considered bad fashion today.) In the film’s most moving sequence, he recedes to the background, as a guitarist, ceding the stage to Ally. And the first time Jackson sees Ally perform, Cooper lets us know every single thing Jackson is feeling: teary-eyed awe at the blazing talent, reverence for genius, appreciation for a unique style, and also maybe some gratitude that he stumbled into this bar, at this moment. A Star is Born is, no doubt, a love letter to Lady Gaga, but the letter writer shines, too.
At the start of David Oelhoffen’s Close Enemies (Frères ennemis, French), narcs swarm into a nondescript apartment in the “projects” of Paris and bust a drug gang, filled with men who look like Middle-Easterners. One of them asks Driss (Reda Kateb), who heads the narcs team, if he speaks French. Driss replies, “I don’t speak Arabic, asshole!” He then looks away. There’s more to this insult, as we discover. Driss, in fact, grew up in these very projects, with Manuel (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Imrane (Adel Bencherif). But while he broke away and became one of the good guys, Manuel and Imrane continue to be hoods. I was reminded of Mystic River. Friends grow apart. Then, something brings them together. Close Enemies is well-made, well-acted — but it’s way too predictable. Every beat reminds us of another, better movie. However did this land a Competition slot?