‘A Star Is Born’ should not work as well as it does. Ostensibly a vanity project shepherded by Bradley Cooper, who stars, directs, and co-writes, with a feature turn by Lady Gaga (billed as such), this is the 4th(?!) time a movie has born this title and story arc. Audiences have seen this a million times already, the rise of an ingenue, an older dog musician with addiction issues, a doomed romance, but Cooper’s take is absolutely captivating, most likely because it is made with love and devotion by a cast a crew fully embracing the grounded, yet MOVIE-NESS of it all.
Cooper opens the movie as Jackson Maine (great name, with the hair and eternal partial beard to match), a megastar musician of the country-rock variety, has just finished a massive arena show. He’s drunk and stoned, and is looking to continue fueling his stupor, having run out of booze on the way to the airport. He ends up in what he thinks is a dive bar, but in a wonderful, endearing twist is actually a drag club, where he sees Lady Gaga’s Ally perform ‘La Vie En Rose’ (apparently she is an honorary queen, the only female allowed to sing because her voice is just that good). He’s completely enraptured and they spend the rest of the night hanging out, even bouncing song ideas off each other, while being chauffeured by Greg Grunberg (one of many note-perfect, mini supporting performances). The whole thing could be cutesy and cheesy, although Cooper shoots everything in extreme closeup, capturing every nuance of the performances. The audience feels like they are part of this budding relationship, witnessing all the warts and awkwardness, in a realistic portrayal of a huge celebrity trying to navigate the wee hours with a ‘regular’ gal who sees past the famous face.
While the first half is perfect cinema, the movie threatens to spiral a bit, before Cooper regains control and takes it home. Gaga’s Ally, fueled by a viral video moment of the film’s most iconic sequence, the surprise stage duet ‘Shallow’, rises in fame and stature as Cooper’s Jack struggles with his inner demons. What hurts this middle segment is its jarring feeling of rushed time as it goes through the motions, in stark contrast to the intimate, lived-in nature of that initial storytelling. Luckily, because these characters are so well drawn (including standout performances by Andrew ‘Dice’ Clay(?!!) as Ally’s driver dad, who she lives with along with his charismatic partners; and Sam Elliot as Jack’s much older brother and father figure – yes, the fact that Cooper seems to ape Elliot’s familiar drawl is acknowledged here), the audience can buy into the ups and downs. There are major unforgettable moments throughout this film, all framed with actorly care, showcasing both scripted melodrama and unscripted asides, like Dave Chappelle’s memorable turn and Gaga appearing to flub a line about eating dinner, when it’s actually breakfast, as well as an all-time dog performance by Cooper’s own pet, Charlie, that bring a real, humanistic touch to material so rote, the arcs are seared into public consciousness.
A movie like ‘A Star Is Born’ not only relies on its acting performances, but its musical ones as well. Its hard to say whether or not the music works outside the context of the movie (although while closing treacle ‘I’ll Never Love Again’ is not a good ballad on the radio, it’s devastating on screen), but as performed on various stages, whether a nightclub, a parking lot, Coachella, SNL, or Carnegie Hall, the songs really work. Gaga might be a huge star in the pop world, but she masterfully plays a hesitant personality who finds her voice and wears various personas, and Cooper, who trained on guitar and honed his voice into an alternating gravelly purr/wail, is a revelation. It may be cliché, but Hollywood just doesn’t make unapologetic, adult-themed, star-driven blockbusters like ‘A Star Is Born’ much these days, usually because the seams tend to show, but this love letter to ’70’s character-driven romances, hits all the right notes, defying age and gender, leaving all quadrants of an audience breathlessly devastated . . .
Directed By: Bradley Cooper
Written By: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, & Will Fetters
Running Time: 136 min.
* * * 1/2 (out of four stars) -OR- B+