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Reviews

Between 2005-2016 I wrote more than 2,000 reviews for the Chicago Tribune's RedEye. Here's a good place to start.

It’s as if 'A Star is Born' stops mid-song

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“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome platinum-selling artist and five-time Grammy nominee, Steve!”

No. You can’t be a one-named artist if your name is not something like Beyonce, Rihanna, Prince or Adele. You just can’t. But the notion of last-nameless Ally (Lady Gaga) becoming a sensation is far from the only time that “A Star is Born” lacks awareness of the music industry and what it takes to go from nobody to “SNL” performer. Throw in a thinly drawn relationship and portrait of addiction that remains at a distance, and it’s not entirely clear why this movie had to be made for the fourth time.

Well, that’s not true. Making his directorial debut, Bradley Cooper (who stars as alcoholic singer Jackson Maine) shows plenty of strong instincts. His “A Star is Born” takes an intimate look at performance in particular, on the faces and movements of those who have both the desire and opportunity to sing in front of dozens or thousands or millions. The music, written for this installment because the ‘70s stuff wouldn’t have played and the first two versions aren’t about the music industry, makes for some pretty good country rock and some of the better Lady Gaga songs I’ve heard (full disclosure: I don’t like her voice or her music). In her first starring role, Gaga (“American Horror Story,” “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For”) does hold her own. Ally’s green but far from soft, and some of the actress and character’s best moments come both when she informs Jack she won’t stand for his drunken idiot routine (not quite in those words, but you get the idea) and when she stands firm as a supportive partner. Plus, Andrew Dice Clay plays Ally’s dad, and any movie that makes one of entertainment’s most obnoxious personas sheepishly likable must be doing something right.

The problem is that the script, credited to Cooper and two other writers, nails the initial bond between Jack and Ally as they meet, she starts performing with him and they fall hard for each other, but then really doesn’t develop from there. The relationship ultimately feels more based on professional benefit than a deep, progressing connection, which sure undermines the way things turn out. Meanwhile, Jack’s personal life is a fuzz. He seems to have no past relationships, no friends besides a surprising dramatic turn by Dave Chappelle and no family except the complicated relationship with his big brother, played by Sam Elliott in a very Sam Elliott part. If he’s alienated people or really felt loss, loneliness or neediness, it’s as vague as the portrayal of his addiction and his varying degrees of functioning. (If you never saw “Crazy Heart,” or how forgot how good it is, catch up. And ICYMI, a few years ago I did a look back at the history of addiction in movies.)

Jack’s demons certainly do not come across enough to identify why he and Ally lack such miscommunication about their careers and schedules (“La La Land” recently did this better, and still not that well) as her opportunities ramp up and the movie tries to make a point about creative voice and integrity. It remains unclear how Ally (who becomes a star far too easily, the movie shielding her from social media and press and vocal difficulties and tangible risks of being aligned with a falling star and countless things that might challenge a newbie) feels about some changes to her branding and what she really has to say in the first place. That Jack believes longevity requires strong, original lyricism works better than the movie believing it; Katy Perry’s lyrics are almost all awful, and she’s obviously huge. And doesn’t just go by Katy.

C+

Matt Pais