Northwestern Press

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Movie Review: A director is born

Thursday, October 18, 2018 by Paul Willistein in Focus

The vagaries of fame and the music business have been covered in story and song many times over.

The Byrds’ “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” (1967) pretty much said it all.

The Rolling Stones weighed in with “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man” (1965).

Prominent in the music rags-to-riches story in cinema is, of course, “A Star Is Born”: 1976, starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, and directed by Frank Pierson; 1954, Judy Garland and James Mason, directed by George Cukor, and 1937, Janet Gaynor and Frederic March, directed by William A. Wellman.

The template for the storyline goes back to “What Price Hollywood?” (1932), starring Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman, also directed by George Cukor.

The plot is not dissimilar from that of “My Fair Lady” (1964), directed by George Cukor from the Lerner and Loewe stage musical based on the 1913 stage play, “Pygmalion,” by George Bernard Shaw.

The discomfiture of the plot in these storylines is that of an older man and younger woman. The man becomes the woman’s mentor and ... well, you get the picture. It’s all fun and games until the student outshines, and outgrows, the teacher.

With “A Star Is Born,” Bradley Cooper couldn’t have chosen a more daunting challenge for his theatrical feature film directorial debut. And he succeeds. “A Star Is Born” is a triumph. As Michael “Movie Maven” Gontkosky said after the screening: “It’s a note-perfect film.”

Indeed, “A Star Is Born” is a leading Academy Award contender. Look for multiple Oscar nominations, including director (Cooper), actor (Cooper), actress (Lady Gaga), supporting actor (Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay), cinematography and song (any number of several by Lady Gaga).

Cooper, 43, directs himself as Jackson Maine, a successful country singer-songwriter; Lady Gaga (Stefani Germanotta), 32, as Ally, an aspiring singer-songwriter, and Sam Elliott, as Bobby, Maine’s conflicted older brother.

The plot is essentially the same as in previous versions of “A Star Is Born,” most especially the Streisand-Kristofferson version. If you’re familiar with the previous films, so be it. We won’t play spoiler here. Despite the familiar cinematic pedigree, Cooper explores new territory in a successful, satisfying and emotionally-moving re-telling of the tale.

The tale’s screenplay credits are auspicious: Cooper (in his theatrical screenplay debut), Eric Roth (Oscar nominee, adapted screenplay, “Munich,” 2005; Oscar, adapted screenplay, “Forrest Gump,” 1994, and Will Fetters (screenplay, “The Best Of Me,” 2014) based on the 1976 “A Star Is Born” screenplay by John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion and Frank Pierson, and the 1954 screenplay by Moss Hart, which is based on a story by William A. Wellman and Robert Carson.

The dialogue has several memorable lines and moments of insight. The onscreen chemistry between Lady Gaga and Cooper is convincing. They also sing duets very well together. Their music performanaces elicit heart-pounding excitement.

Cooper manages well the scenes in which he’s an obnoxious stumble-down drunk, concert stage performances where he convincingly sings and plays like a country-rock star, and attentive dialogue and tender physical clutches with Lady Gaga.

Cooper (Oscar nominee, “American Sniper,” 2014; “American Hustle,” 2013; “Silver Linings Playbook, 2012) gives a great performance behind a full beard and often under a cowboy hat, with a rueful, thin-lipped grin that opens up quickly and easily into a wonderful wide smile, nervous understanding of his own fate in his crystalline-blue eyes, and ragdoll body language of one who has defeated himself in the game of life.

The star of the show, of “A Star Is Born,” is Lady Gaga (her first theatatrical leading role; theatrical movie acting debut, ”Machete Kills,” 2013). This is a transformational performance for Lady Gaga. Her face is stripped bare of her stage act Lady Gaga artifice. Here she’s Stefani Germanotta, right down to the pores on her prominent proboscis, which becomes a plot point and running, pun intended, gag. When her charcter, Ally, is told of her Grammy nomination, she’s in full-schnoz profile. In “A Star Is Born,” as in real life, the so-called Ugly Duckling becomes a beautiful swan.

Credit Director of Photography Matthew Libatique (Oscar nominee, cinematography, “Black Swan,” 2010) for capturing these moments, and varying the lighting choices from light and gauzy to stark and moody, always with interesting camera angles. The guy knows where to place the sticks.

Add to this Editor Jay Cassidy (Oscar nominee, editing, “Silver Linings Playbook,” 2012) who knows how to mix it up, with surprising shifts and quiet spaces.

Cooper elicits several fine supporting acting performances. Sam Elliott is no surprise. He’s always great. Andrew Dice Clay, as Ally’s father, is a surprise. He’s a hoot.

At the heart of “A Star Is Born” is the music. Lady Gaga’s stellar opening number, “La Vie En Rose,” heralds her tackling a classic no less than Bradley Cooper tackling a classic.

In his concert performances, Bradley Cooper is backed by Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real. Lukas Nelson, a son of Willie Nelson, cowrote several of the songs in the movie with Cooper and Lady Gaga. Jason Isbell wrote “Maybe It’s Time,” sung by Cooper.

Lady Gaga wrote many of the songs with a bevy of top songwriters, including Mark Nilan Jr., Nick Monson, Paul Blair, Natalie Hemby, Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna, Aaron Raitiere, Julia Michaels, Justin Tranter, Anthony Rossomando, Andrew Wyatt and Diane Warren.

Look for “I’ll Never Love Again,” to be an Oscar song nominee, and for Lady Gaga to perform the song at the Feb. 24, 2019, awards telecast.

“A Star Is Born” is thoroughly entertaining. It’s a chick’s flick in man’s man world. What goes up, must come down. It’s an old lesson. The truth is in the telling.

“A Star Is Born,” MPAA rated R (Restricted Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. Contains some adult material. Parents are urged to learn more about the film before taking their young children with them.) for language throughout, some sexuality-nudity and substance abuse; Genre: Drama, Romance, Musical; Run time: 2 hrs., 16 mins.; Distributed by Warner Bros.

Credit Readers Anonymous: One of the “A Star Is Born” concert scenes was filmed at the Glastonbury Festival, England. The soundtrack album, performed by Gaga and Cooper, features 19 songs and 15 dialogue tracks.

Box Office, Oct. 12: “Venom” took another bite out of the weekend box office, No. 1 two weeks in a row, with $35.7 million, $142.8 million, two weeks, as “A Star Is Born” continued at No. 2 with $28 million, $94.1 million, two weeks; “First Man” opened at No. 3 with $16.5 million, and “Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween” opened at No. 4 with $16.2 million.

5. “Smallfoot” dropped two places, $9.3 million, $57.6 million, three weeks. 6. “Night School” dropped two places, $8 million, $59.8 million, three weeks. 7. “Bad Times At The El Royale,” $7.2 million, opening. 8. “The House With A Clock In Its Walls” dropped three places, $3.9 million, $62.2 million, four weeks. 9. “The Hate U Give” moved up four places, $1.7 million, weekend; $2.4 million, two weeks. 10. “A Simple Favor” dropped four places, $1.3 million, $52 million, five weeks.

Unreel, Oct. 19:

“Halloween,” R: David Gordon Green directs Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, and James Jude Courtney in the Horror film. A remake of the original with The Scream Queen, Laurie Strode (Curtis) again facing Michael Myers.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” R: Marielle Heller directs Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone in the Biography Drama based on the true story of celebrity biographer based on her memoir of the same title.

“Mid90s,” Jonah Hill directs Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges, Na-kel Smith, and Olan Prenatt in the Comedy. A 13-year-old has a troubled home life so he hangs out at a skateboard store.

“What They Had,” R: Elizabeth Chomko directs Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster, and Blythe Danner in the Drama. A woman returns to her brother’s house to take care of their ailing mother.

Four Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes