A STAR IS BORN – MASTERFUL VARIATION ON AN INHERENTLY DISSONANT THEME

SPOILERS!

SHORT TAKE:

Artistic, excellent, and faithful (4th) version of a A Star is Born, a story with a destructive message.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults only, let me count the ways: language (I think there is only one adjective they knew and they used it with abandon), sex outside of marriage, excessive drinking, illicit drug use, nakedness, and a bar frequented by those with drastically alternative lifestyles.

SPOILERS!!!

LONG TAKE:

There is great wisdom in 1 Corinthians 13:11:

"When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child."

A lot of movies seen in one’s teens and early twenties, seem like a good idea at the time, but do not stand up well under the scrutiny of age and experience.

One of those is Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). When it came out, it seemed like a sci fi fantasy of a man in search of his dream to confirm the existence of extra-terrestrials, who flies off, like Peter Pan, into the stars with them. In fact, the movie is about a man who abandons his wife and children to go off on a lark. Regardless of the circumstances, he is a cad of extra-ordinary proportions. Then Pretty Women (1990), which holds itself out as a modern Cinderella story, actually Disneyfies prostitution, making it look appealing with a prize at the end instead of a body and soul destroying meat grinder (pun intended). Ditto for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). It holds itself out as a musical comedy but really sets up a madam and a corrupt politician as the main protagonists. (Haven’t any of these people seen East of Eden? I suspect Kate’s cold, calculating and cruel flesh peddler is a more accurate version of a madam than Dolly Parton’s cutesy songstress Mona.) You get the idea.

The third manifestation of A Star is Born (1976), with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson seemed, in the theater, to a 17 year old, a romantic, tear jerking, self sacrificing love story. I have seen all of versions 1937, 1976, and 2018 and enough of 1954 to realize that that one is just a badly done and unrelatable Judy Garland vehicle. The names change slightly with each movie. All the men have the surname of Maine, and in this one his given name is Jackson. Gaga's character's name this time around is Ally. In truth A Star is Born – all of them – is about of a man who destroys the person he loves … twice …. because he is a self-indulgent, self-pitying, weak and arrogant coward.

Please don’t get me wrong. I loved A Star is Born when I first saw it in theaters right out of high school. And before I launch into my criticisms of the story, let me say that, on one level, I thought this 2018 Bradley Cooper auteur production the best of the litter – a magnificent bit of cinema (the plaudits for which I will get to later) ………. but of an inherently bad story.

IF I HAVE NOT MADE MYSELF CLEAR HERE YET, THERE ARE SPOLIERS AHEAD!!!

The premise presents itself about a man who is a great star (either singer or actor depending upon which decade’s movie you are talking about) with VERY bad habits, on his way down, who gives "THE FIRST BIG" shot at stardom to a promising female artist. When he realizes he cannot (or will not) cease his destructive behaviors, he kills himself, allegedly, to protect his former protégé, now wife from being held back. What is really happening is that an addicted, boorish, self-indulgent loser, who has achieved his dreams, does indeed generously provide a boost to the extremely talented woman of his dreams. BUT instead of doing the TRULY heroic act of changing his own life FOR her, drags her down. When he decides he will not cease his addictions or his self-destructive behavior, this narcissistic, self-absorbed waste of space tries very hard to destroy her again by committing suicide. In all four cases, this second act of destruction almost succeeds. In all four cases, we are left at the end of the movie wondering when, not if, it will be her turn to follow in her husband's footsteps.

A very big deal is made in the movie about saying something with your art. I must wonder what it is that this movie is trying to say: "When you hit rock bottom you should grab a shovel and dig it deeper by killing yourself?"

BUT – having said my piece on this point —–

Putting this massive flaw aside, the movie is still a masterfully done piece of art. I cannot place blame on Mr. Cooper for the ending because that IS the way it has always played out. I suppose I could blame him for expending his efforts on a story with a terrible message, but once having chosen this project he does an excellent job with its composition. This IS the way A Star is Born was written 81 years ago. (The first version was in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, both BARELY out of the silent film era.)

Kudos to Cooper’s commitment to the project. He mastered guitar playing for this role in an 18 month Blitzkrieg, including performing live at a festival, singing his own original songs, on the same stage with Kris Kristofferson, who previously played the same role for which Cooper was training – all while keeping the movie under wraps! AND Cooper is not just the star of the movie, but also was one of the adapting screenwriters, is the director, one of the producers, did all of his own playing and singing and wrote four of the movie’s songs. I admired the way Cooper approached the story. This Star’s incarnation hits all the high notes, the low notes, the musical arcs and has the same finale as all the others.

Lady Gaga, born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, I was shocked to discover, is quite a talented actress. Not a big fan before hand, I liked "Poker Face" and "Bad Romance," but was not familiar with her videos. I was jaw dropped to see her name in the trailer credits. She, more than a little, resembles a young Barbra Streisand in her manner, looks and singing talent. (She even complains about her nose.) This fits, as Bab’s manager/boyfriend at the time of Streisand's Star was Jon Peters, whose production company made Cooper's Star.

There were a few amazing surprises among the actors, not the least of which was Lady Gaga herself, as already mentioned, who did an incredible job. There is one scene in particular where in she finds herself on stage with Jackson Maine and her subtle and delicate transformation from newbie, frightened singer to confident but still terrified performer whose potential is glimpsed and then blossoms and matures throughout movie is subtle, transformative and deserves recognition. Other stand out performances include Sam Elliott as the REAL hero of the movie who stands by Jackson as long as he can as his manager, confidante, keeper, and older brother.

Andrew Dice Clay made a perplexingly successful career as a stand-up comic by being blunt, vulgar and every –ist you can think of. When you are boycotted by Sinead O'Connor and a regular cast member, Nora Dunn, for a Saturday Night Live appearance, and then from MTV for 18 years for being too offensive, you should consider that perhaps there are some issues with your routine. In A Star is Born he is pleasantly unrecognizable as Ally's gentle and supportive father, who whimsically reminisces about how he could have been a crooner "like Frank Sinatra".

The songs are – in a word – excellent. Catchy and communicative with a readily accessible emotional core, they were all the more surprising in that four of them were written by Bradley Cooper, not heretofore known as a musician.

I was very impressed by some of Mr. Cooper’s directorial decisions. For one thing there is no soundtrack except for the songs being performed or played on the radio or jukebox. There is none of the emotional manipulation, which is almost ubiquitous in other movies’ accompanying score. Don't get me wrong, I love a good soundtrack which often enhances or forewarns the audience in a particular scene. I have often wished I personally had a soundtrack to my life so I would know in advance what was coming.

Mr. Cooper plays his scenes with no such safety net. Some of the movie even feels somewhat documentary. Not in the dry, dusty, awkward way in which we appear as unwanted guests into other people's lives, but as a welcome friend sitting across the table watching the interchange between these two friends, lovers, and musical partners who must inevitably part.

All in all, I enjoyed this incarnation of A Star is Born. I had looked forward to it with a lot of expectation and most were fulfilled. I was sorry they had cut out one particularly appealing scene from the trailer where Jackson tells Ally she is beautiful and her eyebrows rise precipitously in surprise. But in the end I was a little disappointed, but not really surprised. I had hoped against hope, knowing the story, that with this fourth variation on a theme Mr. Cooper would have found a way to make the story more uplifting. It is a faithful telling of the story, but it is unfortunate that the story itself is fatally flawed. So I do not fault Mr. Cooper for the ending.

Just as you are not likely to turn Anna Karenina into a musical comedy, it would be very difficult to alter a classic tragedy without making it unrecognizable. (Although Steve Martin did just that with Roxannecreatively found a way to forge a happy ending with Cyrano de Bergerac but still keeping the essence of the tale intact.)

I just can’t help musing that a truly noble heroic Mr. Maine would have manned up to his own weaknesses, sent his protege on her way, and done something meaningful with the rest of his life: mission work in Africa, volunteer for at-risk kids in inner cities, used his notoriety to become an example of what could happen in Scared Straight programs, done PSA's against drugs and drinking. But alas the Roxanne ending was not to be.

I'll give it this, it is not Singing in The Rain. There is no soft peddling, sanitizing or making light of the music profession. And I suspect this Star is an accurate account of the insides of the industry, where one is lucky to get a guest spot at a bar for drag queens while holding down a job as an unappreciated waiter at a local restaurant. That even if you are lucky enough to "make it," the experience is just as likely to make you an addicted, deaf, jaded wreck as it is to provide you with wealth and power and fame. Star does not paint a pretty picture. What it lacks in virtue it makes up for in honesty. If you can’t be a good example, at least be a horrible warning.

I look forward to Mr. Cooper's next project. I hope it involves some singing because he is quite good. I also look forward to seeing Lady Gaga act again. The relationship between the two was electric and portrayed with a natural chemistry. All of the elements were beautifully crafted and fit like an intricately harmonious chord. I just hope Bradley Cooper finds a more noble project to lend his considerable talents to in the future.

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN – ENCHANTING MUSICAL BASED ON THE SPIRIT OF P.T. BARNUM

SHORT TAKE: Captivating, beautiful, family friendly musical loosely based on the life of P.T. Barnum's early business life and the people on the fringes of society he turned into a family.

WHO SHOULD SEE IT: EVERYONE!!!!!

LONG TAKE:

Donald O’Conner said: "Always leave them wanting more." And in the tradition of PT Barnum, about whom this movie was made – The Greatest Showman does just that.

Half way through the very first opening number I wanted to see it all again. Every scene, every song was a marvel – as compelling, exciting, absorbing and mesmerizing as the Barnum and Bailey Circus shows which enthralled millions of people for 146 years.

PT Barnum is best known as the inventor of the traveling circus, the King of Humbugs, the displayer of the human oddity, the man who said "There’s a sucker born every minute" EVEN THOUGH there is no evidence proving that he actually did say it! In fact, Barnum was also a philanthropist, the founder of Bridgeport Hospital, promoter of gas lighting, improved water systems, abolitionist, and pro-life/anti-contraception advocate.

However, the movie The Greatest Showman is not about his altruistic activities. The movie The Greatest Showman starring Hugh Jackman is VERY VERY loosely based upon the life, enterprises, fortunes, failures and inspiration of PT Barnum as showman.

PT Barnum also once said: "A human soul, that God has created and Christ died for, is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot – it is still an immortal spirit."

It is from the core of this latter philosophy that this screenplay was born. The Greatest Showman is more what PT Barnum represented than about the exact details of the man’s life. The Greatest Showman is about joy, life, family, turning chicken feathers into chicken salad, about never giving up, and overcoming internal as well as external handicaps, and rising above failure and rejection. It is also about embracing with gusto the challenges that God has bequeathed upon every individual soul – be it physical deformity, an unusual height, albinism, being a Siamese Twin, or whether the challenges come from being born into poverty and disadvantage. This story is about learning what is truly important in one’s life and what defines your home and your family.

Barnum’s biography as interpreted by screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, directed by Michael Gracey, and choreographed by Ashley Wallen, starts as the son of an impoverished tailor. Barnum is bright, ambitious, hard working and imaginative. Barnum joins the railroad, takes clerical positions, tries to bring his innovative ideas to his employers and eventually earns enough to support a family. He marries his childhood sweetheart and lifelong friend Charity (Michelle "Oz the Great and Powerful" Williams), against her family’s wishes. They live a modest life but Barnum wants more. When the company he works for goes bankrupt he carves out a unique niche in entertainment singlehandedly with people who have largely been ostracized by society – not for anything they have done but for the physical attributes with which they were born.

In the troupe are Lettie (Keata Settle) the bearded lady and lead female singer in the circus, and General Tom Thumb (whose name in real life was Charles Stratton who was actually 2 feet 10 inches tall) played by the 4 foot 2 inch Sam Humphreys with effects that convincingly makes him fit into the smaller shoes of the original General Thumb.

Theater actor Eric Anderson has a small but rather adorable part as Mr. O'Malley, a skilled pickpocket Barnum meets while on the receiving end of O'Malley trade, who Barnum refashions into a magician and then his box office manager. Far too little is made of this charming character and he just kind of disappears after the first half of the movie in a regrettable editing decision by the film makers.

Barnum's gift is taking the weaknesses and apparent handicaps in others and turning them into strengths. He takes people who hide because of their birth defects and turns them into proud headliners for all the world to see. He takes a petty thief and puts him in charge of his money. He takes a drunken society playwright and convinces him to become the junior partner in an enterprise that will make him a societal outcast but a far happier and more fulfilled man. He takes isolated people and forms them into a family. Barnum understands people and cares about them deeply. This is his gift. But Barnum must learn that not all handicaps are visible and is eventually forced to confront his own prideful self inflicted deformities.

And the story is told with brilliant colorful musical numbers which light up and leap from the screen in the only way that really counts – not via 3D but through panache and vibrant beautiful melodies performed with style and absolutely irresistible enthusiasm.

Hugh Jackman as PT Barnum and Michelle Williams his wife Charity, sing with joyful abandon and dance with infectious charm, gravity defying skill, and tremendous energy. Zac Efron plays Phillip Carlyle, an unhappy swell with a flair for story telling who Barnum entices into his troupe. Efron has grown well beyond his High School Musical days into an accomplished actor and hoofer, and proves he can keep up with even the indefatiguable Jackman. Zendaya performs as the trapese artist Anne with whom Efron’s Phillip falls in love. Efron and Zendaya do all their own flying dancing swinging stunts in an incredible scene where they dance a love song as athletic as the barn raising in 7 Brides for 7 Brothers and as graceful as Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in — well, anything! Most of it is performed flying through the air on rigging and without nets (though interviews revealed they were, thankfully, harnessed for safety).

I can’t say enough good things about this movie. It’s uplifting, beautiful to watch, wonderful to listen to, with brilliant editing that meshes music to dance and slow motion effects used with admirable and effective restraint.

Honestly the only complaint I have is that there was not enough of it. It was too short. You know how some movies – a lot now a days frankly – would benefit from some serious chopping – the Hobbit trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and Pearl Harbor all come to mind. But rarely do you come across a movie which you wish was LONGER.

The progress of Barnum’s jump from childhood to adulthood was blinked over and I would not have minded more of his progress from urchin to self supporting adult. Same for Barnum’s initial success as a "circus" owner to wealthy entrepreneur. Easily 5 or 6 more songs and another hour would have been more than welcome. There could have been more of Mr. O'Malley and included backstories on some of the other performers who are mostly seen in the group dances. And there were even a couple of my favorite lines from the trailer which were cut. It is almost as though the relative newbie director Gracey did not have the courage of his convictions. But he needn’t have worried. What is there is brilliant and entrancing.

I loved this movie not just for the performances by Jackman, Zendaya and Efron which were amazing – blending the acting with the singing and dancing seamlessly as only accomplished confident hoofers can. I also loved the morality tale played out in Barnum’s life as he is forced to reconsider what are those things that make his life worthwhile.

This is an uplifting delightful movie for the entire family. And although I would have loved for it to be another hour long, they employed Mr. O’Connor’s sage words and left us wanting more. I think I’ll just go see it again …. and take everyone I know.

PT Barnum also once said: "The noblest art is that of making others happy." The film makers of this movie about his life I believe are noble souls indeed.