Saturday 13 October 2018

The fame: "A Star is Born"

In times of trouble, turn to the tried and tested. Hollywood's glitziest fourth-quarter diversion A Star is Born has, yes, been filmed thrice before under the same title (in 1937, 1954 and 1976), but its underlying story template has also been channelled by Bollywood (the Aashiqui series), the Human League ("Don't You Want Me?") and, most recently, by La La Land, the Technicolor hit of two years ago that may have ensured this latest, long-gestating iteration finally saw the green light. (Among the stars most recently linked with this version: Clint Eastwood and Beyoncé, and there may not be enough string in the universe to string-theory that film into the imagination.) That very straightforward narrative, a matter of two intersecting arcs, sets out some arcane - and debatable - law of celebrity gravity, insisting that for one star to be born (here, Lady Gaga's waitress-turned-pop-sensation Ally), another (Bradley Cooper's grizzled alt-rocker Jackson "Jack" Maine) must either make room or fade away. There may be some significance in the fact this Star opens at a moment when the industry has haphazardly started to reorganise itself: one of Jack Maine's live favourites features the plaintive line "Maybe it's time we let the old ways die". Yet this is also the first Star to be directed by the actor playing the old white guy on the slide, which shifts other emphases - not least the character of Maine himself, presented here not as some unforgivably boorish lush, but a buff, brooding, attractively damaged addict. This text remains a looking glass in which Hollywood can take a long, soft look at itself and its processes, a glam session of stocktaking we're invited to sit in on.

So what's in it for us? A fair bit, as it turns out, and more than most were expecting when the project was first announced. For starters, it has a romance by which the film can override the self-regard in its premise. Cooper and Gaga are not an obvious pair, especially in these characterisations; one of the movie's background implausibilities is that it imagines a world where Eddie Vedder might hook up - musically, romantically - with Sia (or Gaga herself). Yet they have chemistry, and work very hard in the early scenes to persuade us Ally and Jackson might have a shot at something greater and more lasting than that. These two place a bet together, and find themselves on some winning streak before things go south; they're gamblers who cannot believe their luck, which may be as good a definition as any of those who work in the entertainment industry. As a director, Cooper has a sure feel for the live music scene that we're told has rejuvenated the once-dying music business. Time and again, his Steadicam peers over the shoulders of the actors as they walk out on an actual festival stage, registering the surprise and excited screams of unpaid extras who may have feared they were in for an unexpected guest slot from The Lumineers. In these scenes, the bass is mixed so loud you can feel it doing a number on your internal organs: it's as good as being there, as they say, but the effect also helps us make narrative sense of Jackson's hearing loss, and to spot his dwindling musical powers, his inability to rock a room as he once did. (Subtext of Star 2018: how the traditional, rootsy, white-collar rock long plied by men has of late been comprehensively eclipsed by more flexible young women.)

The film is generally sophisticated in its use of these songs to propel the narrative and generate emotion; even the arrangement and production of individual numbers - whether stripped down or Autotuned up - seem to speak to the characters' state-of-mind at any given moment. (Universal did well to get the Mamma Mia! sequel out before this, lest their film look any more like clunked-together panto.) Still, there are times when that music has to do a lot of heavy lifting. This is the shortest of the colour Stars - 134 minutes, so as to meet the demands of the modern multiplex - and certain prosaic details have had to be omitted or compressed so as to let the songs breathe. The precise location of Ally's crowded (halfway?) house has already become an Internet talking point, but her rise and Jackson's contingent fall feel unusually rapid (predetermined, maybe), and our heroine's make-or-break decision to shift from intimate, self-penned songs to the kind of slamming floorfillers that get to open Saturday Night Live isn't in any way explored: she sets out in this direction simply because that's what her arc demands. I've never been convinced that this narrative is particularly profound - or at least not as profound for us as it might seem to the people who keep revisiting this material: that underlying template strikes me as something like a Stanislavsky textbook, a relic of the Golden Age of cinema that movie people keep going back to because they believe it contains the secrets of the universe, rather than simply a fairly extreme summation (birth-fame-death) of their day job.

If handled correctly, however, it can yield a very absorbing entertainment. Any film that finds room for a line such as "You sold dad's ranch and turned it into a fucking windfarm!" is never going to lack for an element of melodramatic camp, but Cooper the director generally approaches those twin arcs with a no-nonsense, Eastwood-like sincerity (there's no further windfarm activity), while investing individual scenes with the on-the-hoof freshness and textures of his Silver Linings Playbook director David O. Russell. And none of the above reservations really seem to matter whenever Gaga steps back into the limelight Cooper casts to belt out one version or another of "Shallow", the knowingly titled belter by which Star 2018 hopes to convince us there is more to it than first meets the eye and ear. The irony is that, as a 32-year-old who's spent the best part of the last decade towards the top of her profession, Ms. Gaga may feel that her own musical star has been eclipsed in recent times by, let's say, Selena Gomez, Taylor Swift, Dua Lipa or anybody else who's collaborated with Marshmello (whoever he is). If so, then she's picked the right time and the right project to launch a crossover career as a movie star: she'll likely wind up the biggest benefactor from a film that - right through to Ally's closing rendition of a ballad that sounded, to these tired old Maine-ish ears, actionably close to R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly" - forever prioritises the truth inherent in performance over and above all others. She will almost certainly appear on awards-ceremony stages over the long months ahead. Let's hope that, unlike poor Ally, she can get on and off without anybody showing her up.

A Star is Born is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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