" I din’t ask you if you had any lip, I asked if you had a drink! "
— James Cagney, The Public Enemy

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Inside Llewyn Davis

Mythic tale of artistic rejection in the 1960s folk scene —Marty Mapes (review...)

Isaac goes Inside Llewyn Davis

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The latest version of A Star Is Born is a flawed gem.

A Tale as Old as Time

Combustible artistry on stage
Combustible artistry on stage

This tale — as told in 1937, 1954, 1976 and 2018 — revolves around an alcohol-addled celebrity whose star is on the wane stumbling upon a fresh talent. The falling star meets the rising star. As he battles the bottle, he coaches her and watches her career soar. And they fall in love. But it’s a turbulent, challenging relationship that ends in tragedy.

That’s the summary from 33,000 feet. In the first two editions, the story focused on Hollywood and the movie business. In the latest two, the scene shifts to the world of music.

In each iteration so far, though, it’s difficult to hold much sympathy for that falling star. He’s an impenetrable character and — honestly — that’s not by design. He has an alcohol problem — and, in some cases — also a drug problem. Alcohol and drugs are easy devices, external ways of trying to surface the artist’s inner demons — and in each version of A Star Is Born it simply doesn’t work effectively. Sure, plenty of stars have died from alcohol or drug abuse — or died by suicide. Kurt Cobain. Amy Winehouse. Judy Garland. Tragedies one and all.

But, regardless, the fading star of A Star Is Born is mostly unlikable. It’s hard, then, to feel much sympathy for the object of his desire as well, who falls in love with and marries the guy. Dump him. Trade up. Sing out loud.

That lack of sympathy for the male lead — whether it’s Fredric March, James Mason, Kris Kristofferson, or now Bradley Cooper — is a fatal flaw that somehow hasn’t been fixed through the decades. (And, even in this age of Kanye, some scenes still feel forced and implausible — most particularly, the drunken rant on stage at an awards ceremony. It didn’t work in 1937 and it’s even more grating in 2018.)

The Family Maine

In this 2018 version, Cooper — making his directorial debut — pretty closely follows the tempo of the 1976 version (starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson) while also cleverly tying back to the 1954 edition (starring Judy Garland and James Mason). And Cooper also manages to make some nice artistic improvements to the material that helps elevate this version — at least above the weakest and most frustrating of the bunch, the ‘76 remake.

Those artistic flourishes nicely amplify the romance. A simple finger stroke of her nose. Nursing her swollen hand with a bag of frozen peas and gauze tape (she’s got a temper, too, it turns out). And there’s that classic line making its return, “I just wanted to take another look at you.”

“Her” in this case is pop phenom Lady Gaga, as Ally. More about her in a moment.

Bradley’s Jackson Maine has a soulful look in his eyes, which helps set him apart from his predecessors. But Jackson Maine is still a distant, cold character. And there’s a new Maine family wrinkle that both adds to and distracts from the story.

The cleverness lies in returning to the Maine family name (used in both the 1937 and 1954 versions). Jackson Maine has a (much) older brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott, The Big Lebowski). They’re both singers and there’s an interesting conversation in which Bobby accuses Jackson of stealing his voice. Jackson replies by saying Bobby never had anything to say. And, later, Jackson confesses he idolized Bobby, not their father. So, it could be taken, then, that the movie star Norman Maine of the first two editions is Jackson’s father. That’s a nice way to tie back to those progenitors.

But the problem is Cooper mimics the deep tones of Elliott’s voice in order to make a vocal connection and it’s a little off-putting.

Shallow

On the surface, A Star Is Born is about celebrity and all its evils – and rewards. But one of the things this version gets right is its deeper message around artistry. It’s ultimately a tale of talent and creative spirit, and that’s where this version stands apart and garners more appeal.

The importance of having something to say flies in the face of today’s ultra-popular and superficial talent contests – singers covering familiar, popular songs while having nothing new or distinctive to add to the music. As Jackson comments, everybody has talent; the trick is to find something to say that people want to hear. Talent is no replacement for being interesting and there’s this powerful observation: “If you don’t dig deep into your soul, you won’t have legs.” That’s the dividing line between enduring artists like U2 and Bruce Springsteen and countless flashes in the pan, like Clay Aiken and Candice Glover.

And that’s also where Lady Gaga comes in. She has undeniable talent, an interesting back story all her own — and she has things to say. She’s great and her performance here is terrific. But her character, Ally, needs a better back story. Working in a restaurant for an asshole boss doesn’t count as a “struggle” that spurs on creativity. It’s called a “cliché.” And to that end, a much smaller movie, Patti Cake$, offers a far more compelling narrative.

Hollywood’s been trying to tell this story for more than 80 years. Maybe a centennial remake in 2037 will finally get it all right.