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A Star is Born

A Star is Born (15)
Running time 2hr 16min
Rating: ****

IN the age of the mega-franchise, the film industry now appears immune to accusations of dead-horse flogging – this is no less than the fourth version of A Star Is Born, a story which finds a certain resonance among every generation it touches.
This iteration is most clearly influenced by, of all things, the 1976 Star, which rehashed George Cukor’s much-loved 1954 musical as a steamy, all-too-70s catalogue of rock ’n’ roll excess (complete with a deft Kris Kristofferson performance).
Fortunately, there’s far more to it than that – in his directorial debut, Bradley Cooper brings an intimate quality to this classic tale of rising stardom and midlife anxiety. Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, with its giddy, toe-tapping spirit and dizzying
technical ambition, makes for a more obvious successor to the original; this infinitely more restrained work deserves an assessment on its own terms.

Shunning technicolour va-va-voom, the film weaves a most seamless cinematic tapestry. Singer-songwriter Jackson Maine (Cooper) is introduced amid a cacophonous blast of country-rock grit, all thrumming guitars and feedback; he’s playing to an audience of thousands, but he’s not happy. All but consigned to his ‘Greatest Hits’ era, Maine is slowly killing himself with booze and prescription drugs; thus begins a rather formulaic chronicle of washed-up celebritydom, animated by auteuristic direction (we are literally treated to a minute-by-minute visual document of Jackson’s emotional state) and by Cooper’s astonishingly dedicated performance (he learned to play an array of musical instruments just for this role).
Maine meets Ally (Lady Gaga) in a chance encounter at a drag bar; initially keen to nurture her immense vocal talent, she finds her star only as his begins to founder and fade. Quite apart from her flamboyant public persona, Gaga’s is an enthralling portrait of the thrills and frustrations of overnight fame; her rabbit-in-the-headlights artlessness takes a darker turn as Jackson’s alcoholism spirals out of control.

A Star Is Born opts for bootleg authenticity over big-ticket theatrics – detours to Glastonbury, among others, make for an altogether spectacular watch, but the film’s singular focus on its central couple ensures that the musical numbers gel with the realism of the dramatic sequences. Indeed, much of this is real – the gigs are guerrilla recordings of actual performances, but this across-the-board commitment extends right down to the photography itself, the camera never straying far from the main players. Though its tragic plot should be familiar to anyone who’s watched a few movies, the project’s descent into the realms of outright cliché is thwarted by its smart, sensitive treatment of its subject matter. No simple train ride to Hell, Jackson’s journey is a believably nuanced one, peppered with moments of warmth and triumph – there are times when redemption seems a distinct possibility, when it looks as if our heroes might just dance off merrily into the sunset. It doubles effectively as a commentary on the male condition, as Maine’s brand of (avowedly masculine) cowpoke rock gives way to a pop industry more inclined to grant young, ambitious female artists their five minutes of fame (that is, on the studio’s terms – a reality epitomised by Rafi Gavron’s meddlesome exec). Above all, it’s a film that offers something for everyone. The original score is as much a draw as the main action; cinema buffs will find much of interest in Cooper’s unconventional eye, and there’s an Old Hollywood sensibility about it that will captivate romantics.

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