Updated: Feb 25, 2019
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
“A STAR IS BORN”
4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy, 2018; R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse; Streaming via Amazon Video/Prime, FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play (4K), iTunes (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)
Best extra: “The Road to Stardom”
IT’S BEEN a Hollywood staple for over 80 years.
The touching love story, wrapped within a heartbreaking drama, first hit the silver screen in 1937, with writer/director William A. Wellman’s original “A Star is Born,” starring Fredric March and Janet Gaynor. Then Warner Brothers took a stab in 1954, with 32-year-old Judy Garland as undiscovered singer Esther Blodgett, who saves alcoholic screen actor Norman Maine (James Mason), from making a fool of himself during a Hollywood benefit. The film features one of cinema’s greatest showstoppers, “The Man That Got Away,” and received six Oscar nominations.
In 1976, Barbra Streisand played club singer Esther Hoffman and Kris Kristofferson was the boozing rock star, in an uninspired “A Star is Born.” It still received four nominations and won Best Song for “Evergreen.”
Fast-forward to three years ago, when actor Bradley Cooper (“American Sniper,” “Silver Linings Playbook”) desired to direct his first motion picture. “I wanted to tell a love story, because it just feels like something that everybody can relate to,” says Cooper during the making-of documentary, “The Road to Stardom.” Eventually, he settled on recycling the timeless “A Star is Born” – but only if he could sign the sensational Lady Gaga.
Cooper first met Gaga at her lavish beachside home in Malibu, Calif., to talk about the possibilities, and for a brief jamming session at her piano. She instantly knew something special was happening when they started to sing, and recorded the moment on her smartphone, which you’ll see. Cooper planned to star as the alcoholic and drug addicted country-rocker Jackson (Jack) Maine.
Lady Gaga was stunned by Cooper’s raw vocals: “He started to sing, and I was, like… oh, my gosh. This man has an incredible voice. He sings from the vulnerable guttural place.” That night, “A Star is Born” was conceived for a whole new generation.
Cooper ended up taking piano, guitar and voice lessons — five days a week, for six months — preparing to become Jack, following the substance abuse path of the previous films. He knew the script and artistry would need a REAL spark. “If it didn’t match (Lady Gaga’s) authenticity as a singer, the story would never take off,” he said.
Cooper hired Lukas Nelson (son of Willie) to be his music mentor/teacher and Nelson’s band, Promise of the Real, became Jack’s backup band. The Promise of the Real band is known as one of the best backups in the business. Rock legend Neil Young hired the guys in 2015 and they still have that gig. Nelson considered Cooper a natural musician, "just untapped.”
Cooper and producer Bill Gerber finessed the production onto the stages of several big-time music festivals, for short bursts of filming. First at Coachella, and then Stagecoach, both held on back-to-back weekends during April at the Empire Polo Field near Palm Springs, Calif. The movie’s opening scene was filmed for eight crazy minutes right between Jamey Johnson’s and Willie Nelson’s sets, with Cooper singing Jack's “Black Eyes.” Lady Gaga was already headlining at Coachella, and she just added two additional days for her role as the struggling singer/songwriter Ally Campana, who still lives at home, and becomes Jack’s lover, partner, and refuge. In two crazy coincidences, Cooper filmed four minutes at the Glastonbury Festival in England, just before Kris Kristofferson. And the finale with Gaga singing the heart-rending ballad, “I’ll Never Love Again,” was filmed at The Shrine Theater in Los Angeles, the same stage where Garland sang “The Man That Got Away.”
Cooper made “A Star is Born” for a modest budget of under $40 million. It received high praise from critics and moviegoers and took in a worldwide gross of nearly $425 million.
Sunday night, “A Star is Born” is up for eight Academy Awards, with Cooper nominated for Best Actor, co-writer for Best Adapted Screenplay, and co-producer for Best Picture. Lady Gaga is nominated for Best Actress, and Sam Elliott for Best Supporting Actor, as Jack’s older half-brother and road manager. Cooper spent weeks fine-tuning his voice, to nearly mimic Elliott’s deep western drawl, a trademark for TV commercials such as Ram Trucks, Coors beer, and the voice of Smokey the Bear.
All of those are considered long shots for golden statues, but the biggest shoo-in is for Best Original Song, “Shallow,” which Lady Gaga co-wrote. The Sound Mixing is also a top contender, while the excellent handheld photography will likely lose out to “Roma” for Best Cinematography.
Cooper and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (“Black Swan,” “Requiem for a Dream”) captured the majority of the footage using handheld 2.8K/3.4K digital cameras (2.39:1 aspect ratio), while its post-production was mastered in 2K. The 4K has the slightest edge of added sharpness and clarity, with facial close-ups and distant objects and characters, from a predominately wide-angle perspective that puts you on stage during the performances.
The HDR10 and Dolby Vision toning add to the cinematic feel over the HD version, with its striking black levels and super bright stage lights, as many scenes are bathed in red when we first see Ally on stage, in her homage to French singer Edith Piaf, singing “La Vie En Rose.” The facial toning is natural, less overtly orange than found on the HD versions.
From the opening moments, the eight-channel Dolby Atmos soundtrack puts you right in the middle of the concert, or the intimate bar where Jack discovers Ally. The pulsating bass rumbles from the drums as the subwoofer gets a REAL WORKOUT. And the height and rear speakers elevate the soundstage to encompass your environment. The dialogue or vocals are never lost within the musical tracks, which were recorded live.
The 4K and streaming sites include three additional jam sessions not included in the film: “Baby What You Want Me To Do,” “Midnight Special” and “Is That Alright.”
― Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer