One star soars; the other crashes and burns. It’s a tale as old as time, flattened and fatigued by constant repetition. So why in hell did Bradley Cooper choose to make his debut as director with the third remake of A Star Is Born? What could he bring to the role of the self-destructive headliner living in the shadow of the protégée he loves? And why did he have Lady Gaga, going out on a limb in her first starring role, to follow in the footsteps of the legends who previously aced the role of the newbie: Barbra Streisand (1976), Judy Garland (1954) and Janet Gaynor (1937)? Talk about walking a tightrope without a net.
The movie starts and you think, “Oh no, not again.” And then, boom: Cooper sneaks up and snaps you to attention. Though there’s no disguising the film’s dated origins, the actor-turned- director’s defiantly fresh approach allows A Star Is Born to emerge as a skyrocket of soul-stirring music, drama and heartbreak. By dumping the usual Hollywood bullshit for something that feels raw, scrappy and lived-in, Cooper and Gaga knock it out of the park. Seamlessly integrating terrific original songs with a script he wrote with Eric Roth and Will Fetters, Cooper refashions his Star for a right-now generation tired of watching blunt truth give way to softball fantasy. The Oscar race has now officially begun.
His character, Jackson Maine, is a washed-up country rocker with a love of booze and lines of blow. The musician’s depressive state has its roots in a turbulent childhood reflected in his contentious relationship with his older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott), who resents Jackson for co-opting his voice. And Dave Chappelle scores as Noodles, a friend who worries that not even love can save the hard-livin’ musician’s soul. Cooper’s performance is enhanced by his surprisingly credible singing. There are times when Jackson’s lyrics still get through to him, as in, “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.”
Or maybe it’s time for him to find his purpose in helping Ally, a waitress who’s getting nowhere as a singer-songwriter. The role is usually played as an ingénue looking for guidance in a world of male predators. Lucky for us — and the movie — Gaga doesn’t do ingénue. Her would-be star from a boisterous Italian family (Andrew Dice Clay barrels through the role of her rowdy Sinatra-crooner dad) has been kicked around by an industry that likes her sound but not her look. She’s a street fighter who knows she’s good. Still, Ally balks when this famous singer drags her onstage.
Of course, the crowd goes wild. Gaga is a lightning bolt of emotions — and one hell of an actress. Born Stefani Germanotta, Gaga constructed herself as a one-woman visual extravaganza (remember that meat dress?). But not in this movie. To play Ally, she strips herself of all artifice. There’s nothing to hide behind. And while Jackson shrinks from the spotlight, she inhales it like oxygen. The script hints at a sharp notion, that Ally might lose herself in the same way her dad did. Her new manager, Rez (Rafi Gavron), wants Ally to add dancers and glitz to her act. Can she resist?
Cooper elevates a shopworn genre by fully integrating story and song. And the film gains welcome authenticity by recording the songs live, solos and duets, at various music fests, including Coachella and Glastonbury. Jackson and Ally are singer-composers who write what they live. Early on, they sit outside a supermarket at night, crafting an anthem about the euphoria and terror of what’s ahead. It’s called “Shallow” — and it’s easily the best movie song in years.
The director’s gut-level commitment to the material comes through, even when the film tips dangerously into shallow sentiment. It helps immeasurably that the songs Cooper and Gaga wrote in tandem with other musicians, including Mark Ronson, Jason Isbell and Lukas Nelson (Willie’s talented son), give a real-deal urgency to this tragic love story. You get pulled into a force field, thanks to Cooper’s behind-the-camera chops and Gaga’s sound and fury. By the time the end credits roll, you realize that, in fact, two stars have been born.