- A Star Is Born
- Directed by Bradley Cooper
- Written by Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper and Will Fetters
- Starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga
- Classification 14A; 135 minutes
Hollywood loves a showbiz story, which must be why A Star Is Born has been revived three times. The 1937 original, apparently inspired by real figures of old Hollywood, starred Janet Gaynor as an aspiring actor and Fredric March as the fading matinee idol who falls in love and takes her under his wing. The 1954 revival played to Judy Garland’s triple-threat talents, transforming the piece into a musical with James Mason overseeing the career of a rising showgirl. The story was then firmly moved into the music industry in 1976 as a vehicle for Barbra Streisand, playing against Kris Kristofferson. So, Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, set in the contemporary music biz with singer Lady Gaga herself playing a rising indie talent to his struggling star, is the fourth iteration of the story.
But underneath the glitzy trappings of roaring crowds and overnight fame, what Cooper deftly reveals, in a script he co-wrote with Eric Roth and Will Fetters, is that A Star Is Born is irresistible because of its oh-so-solid foundation: It rejoices in a classic structure in which one upward trajectory and one downward meet for a shining moment in the middle. Under Cooper’s direction – and thanks to his chemistry with his co-star – the movie throbs with the excitement of that meeting, while the downfall of his alcoholic rocker achieves an almost tragic catharsis. The schmaltzy Streisand/Kristofferson version of this story is not aging well; Cooper has breathed contemporary life into A Star Is Born.
Key to that is the actor’s Jackson Maine, a hard-drinking alt-country stadium rocker who is losing his hearing to his art. Along with an interesting family backstory, it’s one of several smart details, and Cooper plays incipient deafness touchingly, tilting his head as he smilingly asks speakers to repeat themselves or straining to hear Ally (Lady Gaga) over background music after he first encounters her singing La Vie en Rose in a drag club.
During that first meeting, she punches out an obnoxious fan for him; charmed by her rawness, her voice and the revelation of her secret songwriting, the impulsive Jack starts courting – not seducing. Alone in a hotel room with her, he simply falls asleep; his manager (a powerfully sad Sam Elliott in a role filled with surprises) says she is the first girl Jack has ever brought home safely. Given recent revelations about how powerful men in the entertainment industries behave toward women whose careers need advancing, this delicacy may strike the viewer as wildly unrealistic in the abstract. Still, the vulnerable character Cooper produces makes it plausible in the specific.
As for her part, it’s no surprise that Lady Gaga can belt out a showstopper on stage; it’s her spoken performance as the hardened suburban cookie that is a revelation. If the 1976 version was a vehicle mainly for Streisand’s ego, this one is notable for stripping Gaga of the makeup and the attitude, lifting the veil on the heavily costumed character of her own career. (And that’s literally lifting the veil: She appeared at the film’s North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last month in a pillbox hat swathed in black tulle.) Here, her face almost free of makeup, her hair pulled back in a messy ponytail, she projects a novel earthiness.
Given Gaga’s real-life persona, there is a certain irony in another deft contemporary touch: Jack disapproves of the glitzy packaging of the new Ally ordered up by a slimy British producer (Rafi Gavron), and talks sadly about waiting for her to return to her true musical self.
The film captures that true self; the musical personality it creates for both characters is rich and idiosyncratic, achieved through a series of original songs performed by Cooper and Gaga, and written by the stars themselves with much assistance from a team of songwriters led by Lukas Nelson. The results are an immersive soundtrack that becomes part of the story: not hard to believe that crowds are cheering to hear Jack break into the first notes of the ballad Maybe It’s Time or are seduced by his duet with Ally, Shallow. There’s the occasional false note – Ally’s final number, I’ll Never Love Again, feels emotionally calculated – but mainly, the film works well both as tragic romance and as rock musical.
As Ally’s and Jack’s paths diverge, Cooper avoids some of the melodrama of his predecessors, but has stuck with the darkest interpretation of the various endings. Her voice rises, his falters and you know where this is going, but Greek tragedy always has a sense of the inevitable, too.