Releasing alternate or expanded versions of big-hit movies into theaters isn’t a new idea. The first one I remember seeing was “Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition,” which opened in the late summer of 1980, three years after the original. The new version was a pet project of Steven Spielberg, who had to rush to finish the original film and wasn’t able to shoot some scenes that he wanted. He added those in, and also made trims (the new version was actually three minutes shorter). But the one change he made at the studio’s bidding was to add a sequence at the end in which Richard Dreyfuss enters the alien spaceship. The executives at Columbia Pictures thought that would be a commercial hook, and they were right: Who wouldn’t want to peek inside that spaceship?
To this day, that sequence is the only thing I remember about “Close Encounters: The Special Edition,” and frankly that’s because I thought the sequence was terrible. I bring it up because it stands as an example of the risks of meddling with a movie that’s achieved a towering artistry and — in its original form — an iconic place in the culture. The ending of the original “Close Encounters” was poetic perfection; it showed just enough, and by leaving what was on the spaceship to our imaginations, it seemed to be sending Richard Dreyfuss off on a dream. In “The Special Edition,” Dreyfuss walked onto that ship, and it looked like the world’s tallest disco bedecked with Christmas lights. And why wasn’t anyone there? (The subtext seemed to be: We can afford this shot, but we can’t afford alien extras.) When I came out of “Close Encounters: The Special Edition” and thought back on the incandescence of the original version, my only reaction was that I wanted the new one to go away.
Special editions, which are usually director’s cuts, have long since been the province of DVDs (and, before that, VHS tapes), and it’s rare to see one that improves on the original; my own feeling is that nine out of 10 aren’t merely unnecessary but, in truth, inferior. One exception: The extended cut of David Fincher’s “Zodiac.” It was richer, headier, and creepier in nearly imperceptible ways. I didn’t remember the original film well enough to be able to pinpoint the additions, I just knew that its power had a new sheen. So monkeying with an extraordinary film isn’t necessarily a folly. It just usually is.
With that in mind, I went to see the special “encore” edition of “A Star Is Born,” which opened today for a one-week run on 1,150 screens in North America, with more curiosity than cynicism. “A Star Is Born” was my favorite film of last year, and having now seen it four times, I still find it a transcendent and tingle-worthy love story that offsets its classical structure with a spontaneous, loose-limbed, this-is-really-happening vibe. Every time I see the movie, it’s like a journey. Each time, I’m drawn in just when I think I know what’s coming too well to be drawn in.
And while I was honestly a little mystified at the level of excitement that surrounded Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s performance of “Shallow” on the Oscars (it’s not that I thought their duet was anything less than intimate, gorgeous, romantic, ingeniously camera-blocked, etc.; it’s just that I wanted to tell all the people who were rhapsodizing, “If that performance struck you as such a revelation, there’s a film you’ve obviously never seen that I totally want to recommend to you!”), it did leave me primed to see a kind of bootleg version of “A Star Is Born.” Added music scenes are the hook of the encore edition. Was there a song performance left on the cutting-room floor that might now look and sound essential?
Short answer: no. It’s the same movie, one I thought was more or less perfect to begin with. And though the 12 minutes of added tidbits are seamlessly integrated, so that you don’t feel anything jarring, there wasn’t a moment when I said to myself, “Yes, that’s a keeper! I would miss it now if I saw the original.”
The first addition comes in the opening scene, and it’s a fascinating test case, because I adore the way that “A Star Is Born” opens: in rock ’n’ roll media res, with Cooper’s Jackson Maine at the edge of the stage, gobbling down his pills along with a swig of gin, pumping himself up for his entrance, then plunging into that power riff that is so Allman Brothers Band-meets-Pearl Jam. What’s mesmerizing about the song he sings, “Black Eyes,” isn’t so much that it’s a great song as that it’s a fantastic imitation of a real song; you can just about taste how long Jackson has been singing it.
In the encore edition, it goes on for about two minutes more and does something it didn’t do in the original movie: It ends. Frankly, I would call that one step forward, two steps back. What’s gone, or at least not nearly as effective, is the astonishing jump cut from the concert stage to the back of Jackson’s limo, which originally said to us: Forget the stage, this is where he’s really living. Now, that same cut plays as a more conventional transition. The eloquence of it is gone. But you do get to hear another country-anvil verse or two of “Black Eyes,” if that floats your boat.
The second major addition I have similar mixed feelings about. It’s in one of the film’s greatest scenes — the parking-lot encounter between Jackson and Ally, where he’s nursing her bruised hand and learns that she’s a songwriter, just like him, and also learns that she might be a great one when she improvises a passage (“Tell me something, boy,/Are you happy in this modern world?”) and adds it onto a song she’s been working on, which turns out to be the chorus of “Shallow.” In the new edition, Ally’s a cappella performance is notably longer — you really get the essence of the full-on song, and it gives you more of a chill. All good, right? Yes and no. I can never get enough of “Shallow,” but in a way the song now peaks too early. That said, the new scene coaxes out a bit further one dimension of the Jackson-Ally relationship: that he’s falling in love with her talent.
There are other added moments, like Jackson and Ally writing a song called “Clover” together in the middle of that first tour; it heightens the sense of what collaborators they are. And there’s one dramatic moment that’s easily the sharpest new scene: Jackson, after the Grammy rehearsal of “Pretty Woman,” has an extended encounter with the golden-throated millennial rocker from New Zealand who’s replacing him as the number’s lead singer, and their conversation is as awkward, sincere, fake, and revealing as you could want. It leaves you with an enhanced feeling of how uncomfortable Jackson is at being shunted into the background. And it helps to set up the Grammy performance of “Pretty Woman,” which is one of “A Star Is Born’s” greatest scenes, because of its sly gender mythology: Jackson, blasted, playing his guitar too rocky and loud, as an assertion of his rip-roaring old-school masculinity, while Roy Orbison’s playful leering vocal is updated into a man-and-woman duet, which kind of takes the gaze out of it.
The encore edition of “A Star Is Born” isn’t just a marketing ploy (though my ticket at a Manhattan theater cost $26). It’s a gift to fans who might be honestly eager to experience these “extras” on a Dolby-ized big screen. Yet extras — cutting-room curios — is really all they are. And if you go back a few months to “Once Upon a Deadpool,” a revamped version of “Deadpool 2” whose creators were willing to go back and treat their original handiwork as hamburger, you wonder if this is a coincidence or a trend — and, if the latter, whether it’s a good or bad one. The nature of movies we love is that we don’t necessarily want to see them mucked with. Even their “flaws” become part of their essence, and in that sense, over time, they cease to be flaws at all. I went into the “Star Is Born” encore edition with faith in Bradley Cooper as an artist, and he didn’t mess up his movie, but he didn’t add anything I wouldn’t want to be without. Great movies live in the deep end. Special extra value-added scenes are, by nature, closer to the shallow.