It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the 75th Venice International Film Festival (29 August – 8 September), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.
Milo Garner assesses Bradley Cooper’s much anticipated directional debut.
A Star Is Born is, if nothing else, competent filmmaking. Despite the various doubts that were justifiably raised around the project – an actor’s directional debut starring a largely untested pop star is always going to be a questionable proposition – Bradley Cooper has defied these early critics and created a surprisingly functional film. Besides a few laboured shots (at one point, Cooper’s drunk and drugged rockstar drives past a billboard depicting nooses) this could easily be directed by one of Hollywood’s old hands. It gets from A to B, and gets there without any major slip-up. A lack of enthusiasm might be detected in this write-up so far, as it is that very feeling that the film inspired in me. Everything works, the wheels crank round and the script tears on, but rarely does it reach above base functionality. It is of little surprise that this is a remake (the fourth!) of a film from the 1930s – it brings to mind the assembly line nature of all but the best of Hollywood in that period.
The narrative progression should sound familiar – a woman singing in a bar gets spotted by a rich-and-famous musician who rockets her to fame, but it’s not all that it seemed once she gets there. It’s what they did before the X Factor, common practice. Cooper’s spin is curious in that it isn’t a spin at all – he plays it exactly straight. A few drag queens are thrown in for good measure (then promptly edged out), but this is essentially a beat for beat remake in a modern skin. By foregoing any narrative surprise, the film would then need some compelling characters to function in any interesting way, however again Cooper fails to provide anything more than what would be expected as minimum. Lady Gaga’s Ally is especially disappointing, nearly escaping the whole of the film with her morality unscathed; the person she is at the beginning is essentially the same one she becomes by its end, only then with more money. Fame’s corrupting tendrils are considered, of course, but always batted away before they cause any significant damage, and more than that, remains often superficial. Backing dancers might not fit Gaga’s vibe, but modern celebrity culture asks for far worse of its young stars than for them to simply dye their hair; a more incisive consideration of modern fame could have made this section engaging, but instead we are left with something that fails to reach beyond the surface.
Superficiality is, however, inherent to a good deal of the film. Again reflecting its 1930s heritage, A Star Is Born enjoys wealth as much as it supposedly critiques it. In the 30s, cinema was often used as a window into how the other half live, with screwball comedies backdropped by palatial chandeliers, droll servants, and blinding sequin dresses. As we follow Gaga’s rise to fame, the film seems to enjoy the process. It almost appears to be wish fulfilment; a flawless protagonist is picked up by a broken-but-beautiful man who lets all her dreams come true. There are trials along the way, but these never question the nature of being famous inherently, just the way of being famous, or the way of being wealthy. To win a Grammy is great, the film supposes without question, but perhaps not like that. It isn’t generally the business of a film like this to ask such questions, that much I can grant, but lacking anything else of real interest lays bare its otherwise more acceptable flaws.
Any interest that might be implicit even despite this is then consumed by a corrosive blandness as the film enters its second half. Here, after fame is secured, the rhythm falters. We must instead be sated by the turbulence in its central relationship, generally signified by Cooper getting off his face and Gaga condemning him for doing so, him going clean, then getting off his face again. A circular motion of that like is, again, not poor by design, but should serve as a foundation for something (anything) more compelling. Instead the romance develops and unfurls as might be expected, and any chance of a rousing melody replaced by the constant drone of predictability.
While drones and melodies are in mind, the music deserves a mention. Three styles dominate – stadium country/blues, stadium pop, and ballads combining a little of the two. The singing and playing is all adequate, perhaps even quite good, but other than a few of the guitar solos I wasn’t hugely impressed by anything on display. A matter of taste, certainly, but if La La Land can make me like show tunes anything is possible. I suppose my feelings about the film’s music reflect well my feelings on the film altogether – technically well put together and rarely unpleasant in a direct sense, but then so unremarkable, so flatly predictable. I’m sure A Star Is Born will become something of a sensation in the coming months, and will find itself beloved by many for its by-the-book balladry. But I’d prefer a few wrong notes to a progression so dull as this.
A Star Is Born will be released in UK cinemas everywhere on October 5th. Check out its trailer below: