A STAR DIRECTOR AND A STAR LEADING LADY ARE BORN ANEW

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A Star Is Born is a heartbreaking love story, a torch song for the dream of being a true artist and an intense reflection on the impact those who truly matter have on our lives. On one level this is a sweeping romance between two sexy leads living the dream of being rock stars and on another an indulgent weepy effortlessly evoking strong emotions. General audiences can go along, ship the relationship and cry with the main characters amidst their struggles. Director Bradley Cooper has structured the film to work on this level and work well but it is far more layered than that and I think part of its success has been due to audiences picking up on the nuances too and loving these aspects as well.

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Our two star-crossed lovers are Ally (Lady Gag) a waitress and aspiring singer/songwriter and Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) an established star currently on the wane due to personal suffering more than anything else.  Ally has never had anybody believe in her talent the way Jackson does and Jackson has maybe never had anybody love him so unconditionally as Ally does. There’s a lot of choices made by everybody involved in this production that has come together under Cooper’s drive. Ally and Jackson are artists, they show an interest in each other after they first hear each other sing, they fall in love with each other less as a meeting of the souls and more out of their shared love of their craft. The first night they spend together they barely touch each other, when Jackson tells her how he views his fame and she tells him part of a song she’s working on this is a much deeper connection and shared intimacy for them than sex ever could be. The sex comes, a well choreographed scene that seems to evoke both how sex can be with someone hung over and yet also be passionate and consuming. Yet Cooper knows how important that first night staying up and talking can be more important for the characters and more important for the narrative. After that first night we’re in all the way with Ally and Jack and the rhythm of the film, like it can be in a relationship, never quite gets back what it was like that first night.

Instead the narrative plays out with one star ascending and the other on the wane. The rest of the film isn’t quite as effective as those opening scenes, characters come and go a little bit for narrative purposes, an agent comes in to personify the division between Ally and Jack and later on in and remains a heartless villain but not without some reason. Yet the relationship never stops feeling real and drawing you in. Cooper and Lady Gaga have a nice relaxed chemistry that reads as authentic, their dialogue never feels manufactured and so many of their conversation scenes take place in domestic settings away from the spotlight. Gaga in particular is on point throughout, there’s been a lot of talk of how new she is to this game but she actually trained as an actor, has had roles in other films and television before this. As her first feature film lead role it fits that her performance is natural and not over affected, I do sincerely believe this is part of her talent but also part of the confidence and focus that Cooper has given her on set. His performance is very much across the same lines feeling real and raw but it is not his acting that stands out here.

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This has to be one of the best looking and best sounding films of the year, expertly cut in the editing and meticulously crafted every other way. Small token shots have lights and smoke timed perfectly for maximum effect and yet in the moment reactions are captured. No matter how many takes it took, how many elements were in play or how close the cameras were to the performers’ faces everybody involved makes it appear everything is happening in the moment for the first time and maybe it is. Also it presents the physicality of the bubble of fame that comes around a person as they ascend. Walls of people gather round, fans, staff, groupies and with it a hum of noise. Leaving a concert early on Jackson is surrounded by noise and activity until he crawls into the back of his limo and is met with utter silence and loneliness. One lone driver upfront to make small talk to, who understands part of his job is to be quiet if that is what his employer wants. A high amount of camera work is up close and personal and on the move perfectly evoking the perspective of characters through small intimate scenes to moments at big public venues. The film articulates well the intoxicating elements of fame but also its emptiness and its precariousness. This is a phenomenally well crafted film with a maturity and confidence that is unique for a first time director and could have only come about through a real passion and drive. With this Bradley Cooper does not promise to become a great director – he is one.

The music such an important part of the story reflects the themes of the tale. The central duet ‘Shallow’ has lyrics that reflect an us against them mentality but also an individual about to take flight and reject her fears. The other songs are beautiful, Cooper in particular has a nice country ballad in ‘Maybe It’s Time.’ For a musical the soundscape is on par with any special effects laden film released this year.

Earlier versions of this film were set in a different time when getting help was maybe less discussed. Jackson seeks help in this film, I won’t spoil what happens but it offers a much deeper emotional connection to the ending as a result and maybe raises some conversations. A cutaway perfectly timed that closes the film will have most in tears. This is an old school Hollywood film in the greatest sense, it has big stars, big themes and delivers big emotions. It is one of the year’s best.

-Lloyd Marken

 

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I HAD A PAPER ROUTE TOO

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I was interested to what would happen in episode 4 of the new David Letterman show My Next Guest Needs No Introduction where he was to interview rapper Jay-Z. I don’t know Jay-Z or a lot about his genre of music. I also didn’t recall interviews between the two on The Late Show. To me it seemed like this was an opportunity for Letterman again to push outside his boundaries a little in away that interviews with Tina Fey, George Clooney, President Barack Obama and Howard Stern would not offer. Jay-Z is one of the biggest entertainers in the world and so its no surprise to find out that he was on Letterman back in the day but none of these talks seemed to have become the stuff of legend the way say ones with Stern did.

This new show disappoints and satisfies in equal measure then from what I was hoping for. For starters Jay-Z is warm, funny and thoughtful as an interview subject and he’s got a story or two to tell. Learning about Jay-Z’s life is the highlight of the program as he looks back on a father who wasn’t around, a mother who couldn’t be true to her own sexuality and a teenage boy selling crack after growing up in poverty. Music saved Jay-Z but its also interesting to note lots of people who helped him along the way. Now he is using his weight to look out for people not given enough opportunities or are treated unfairly from the justice system. If you’re inclined to argue that a justice system will target communities where crime is prolific not race I don’t think Jay-Z particularly cares. He’s offering scholarships for young people poor but smart. He’s asking does the punishment fit the crime and then fighting for those where he sees it isn’t. I’m happy to see that too.

But if you were looking to get an insight into the world of rap you will be sorely disappointed. Letterman discusses how complex the music is and Jay-Z discusses how putting something together is just like writing jokes for a stand-up. A few songs are discussed but they’re not played, something that would upset the flow of the show I admit. Also when Obama’s speeches or Clooney’s film clips weren’t shown in previous minds I didn’t mind because I knew what they were talking about but whereas here my own ignorance meant I was disappointed not to be showed more.

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Also in those episodes the remotes fitted nicely into articulating an aspect of the main guest. Here we go to Shangri-La studios and talk to producer Rick Rubin on a day where they doing some recording with singer Madison Ward. Two things stood out immediately, Rubin gives Dave’s beard a run for its money and two you can be an older gentleman in shorts striking a yoga pose. I’m just sayin’. Rubin is a legend in his own right and could easily be the subject of his own show and Ward has a first rate voice. While Jay-Z discusses the artistic process of producer and singer, its obvious this is intended to give us a demonstration of it. It also perhaps hint that whatever the genre of music or the background of the artist the point of music is always the same. That’s a lovely sentiment and some of the remote is nicely edited together and the lyrics of the closing song (beautifully dueted by Ward and Lukas Nelson) echoes some of what has been discussed by Letterman and Jay-Z.

Yet you might not even be aware after watching it of Rubin having been co-founder of Def Jam records which Jay-Z would go on to become President of. You will however be painfully aware of Letterman’s high school romance with an English girl as being one of the coolest things that ever happened to him in the same hour of television where he discusses marital infidelity. Regina you’re a saint. As interesting as some of this was I can’t help think of how much more effective it would have been if we’d been in the recording studio with an actual hip-hop artist. To me the discussion of the music is where this episode misses the mark.

The show closes strongly when Letterman discusses his own transgressions and then asks Jay-Z if any of this sounds familiar. Jay-Z gives a good but perfunctory answer and they move on to another topic and then Jay-Z further articulates how you’ve got to be better than the worst you’ve done. Unprompted he owns up more to his regrets and the lessons he took from them. Some of the lessons Jay-Z is trying to learn are ones we could all learn from about how to put away ego and fear and be good to others. Letterman (who never gives easy praise) says he loves him and they shake hands. Missed opportunity or not, the show does have it’s moments.

-Lloyd Marken