(I’ve always thought they should revisit the Garland musical with Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, but, alas, I think that ship has sailed.)
I was wrong about the need for this latest version. Dead wrong. Director and star Bradley Cooper has made an exceptional film and the perfect version of this timeworn story for our post-millennial malaise.For those who’ve seen any or all of the previous versions, the familiar fractured fairy tale story beats remain: male star at his peak meets female unknown; the parabolic trajectories of their respective careers intersect as hers is on the ascent and his is …not so much; he has substance abuse problems; she wins a major award and he embarrasses the crap out of her on live TV; things continue to spiral and tragedy ensues, but like a phoenix from the ashes, she reclaims her destiny in a triumphant final number. Exeunt.
Yet, this version is unlike the others. The simplistic, melodramatic narrative belies a more nuanced approach that jettisons broadly drawn archetypes and he said/she said outright villainy. Rather than mire in toxic masculinity his character Jackson Maine (an homage-in-name-only to James Mason’s “Norman Maine” in the 1954 film), Cooper gives us a man broken by such impulses (as evidenced by his neglectful father), a man whose heart is so shattered that all he knows to do is sing and drink (a lot). But he’s not mean. He’s basically sweet. Lost. And consummately effed up.
Following a concert performance and in pursuit of more liquor, Jackson stumbles into a drag bar, and, rather than act like a macho jackass, settles in and enjoys the show. Lady Gaga’s Ally is an occasional performer there, and her version of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose” catches Jackson’s eyes and ears.In all other versions (at least as I recall), the story takes a Svengali-like approach in that the male character remakes the woman into the titular “star.” She is beholden to him, at some level, for her success – or at least he thinks so, and the less-enlightened dudes in the audience might inadvertently sympathize with his plight.
Cooper, working from a script written in collaboration with Eric Roth and Will Fetters, offers a more balanced approach. These two incomplete souls heal each other, with Ally’s spirit and agency bringing much needed light into Jackson’s world and he merely holding open the door through which her natural talent can shine.As a result, the dynamic changes greatly in the second and third act, wherein, in other versions, the male character typically becomes a fiend. Jackson isn’t a fiend. He’s just a mess. That is both refreshing and a tad problematic story-wise. We see Ally transform into a pop diva over which Jackson becomes mildly contemptuous … and she ain’t having any of that. “I don’t want to lose the part of me that is, you know, talented,” she notes. Ally is very much her father’s daughter (Andrew Dice Clay is manopausal magic as her doting meat-head daddy); and she may be a devoted caretaker (to Jackson, to her family), but she is no sucker. The disastrous co-dependence that derails the couples in other versions of the story isn’t as evident (that’s a good thing), but it does tend to take a little steam out of this iteration’s mid-section as we wait for Jackson’s disaffection for the industry (and himself) to lead inevitably to some heartbreaking choices.
I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t seen previous takes on the story, but things don’t end well for Jackson. Cooper stages those moments so delicately, so artistically, so humanely. And when Ally has her final “say” through song, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.As for the music? That is the third star of this crackerjack film. Written by Lukas Nelson (Willie’s son), Gaga, and Cooper, the songs are a touch Black Keys, a bit Shooter Jennings, and not exactly my cup of tea, but utterly perfect in context. This is the rare movie where the moments that work so well in the trailer work even better in the finished product. You’ve seen the highlights, but you have no idea how impactful they will be in context.
“The Shallow” is most likely to become the “I Will Always Love You” or “My Heart Will Go On” inescapable movie hit of this decade. However, in the film when Ally takes that stage and Gaga’s triumphant, hurricane wail lets loose as the ultimate validation of a female voice that has been ignored and mistreated? Your hair will literally stand on end. Gaga is a fantastic talent – she knows how to break your heart and then turn on a dime and allow you to soar alongside her. That’s a rare gift. Cooper does such a fantastic job staging the thunderous concert footage, you truly feel immersed in the performative aspects of these characters’ lives.
At one point, Sam Elliott – all beautiful silvery Sam-Elliott-trademark-gravitas as Jackson’s older brother (it makes sense in the film) – intones to Ally, “All the artist can tell you is how they see those 12 notes [in an octave]. Jackson loved how you saw those notes and what you had to tell.” At core, this is a film about compassion and about intention and about loving those who love us no matter how broken we/they may be. Jackson sings, “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” Indeed, it’s well past time. Well past time.
_________________________________Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).
In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.
My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.