Late on in Bradley Cooper‘s oncoming, unstoppable, get-out-of-the-damn-way-everyone-storm’s-a-comin’ juggernaut “A Star is Born,” Bobby Maine (Sam Elliott) says wistfully “There are just 12 stages, 12… ‘notes’ in an octave, and after that the octave repeats. It’s the same story told over and over, forever.” He’s describing the music philosophy of his younger brother, rock star Jackson “Jack” Maine (Cooper), but he’s also tacitly justifying the whole project — there are only so many notes to play and only so many combinations that make sense, so why not rework a movie that has been made three times before (not counting a loosely similar 1932 George Cukor movie, not to mention Bollywood and likely other foreign-language adaptations)? The fable of the see-sawing ascent and descent of an ingenue and her mentor is as close as Hollywood cinema has come to minting its own foundational fairytale, after all, and no one ever went broke remaking “Cinderella.”
But as canny a choice as it now seems to be for first-time director Cooper and first-time big-screen leading Lady Gaga, let’s take just one quick moment to remember back to when the film was announced, when its success was anything but a foregone conclusion, and the very idea of Gaga de-glammed and striving, and Cooper singing and svengali-ing, had everyone suppressing a smirk. …Aaand now be aware that that moment is definitely over: “A Star Is Born,” may not be quite the greatest film ever made, as that face-meltingly hyperbolic leaked review insisted, but that hardly matters. It’s going to be a phenomenon, and it’s my happy duty to report that it’s also very good.
It’s particularly good in its rousing, delightful, chemistry-laden first half that is launched like a rocket by the onstage footage of Cooper’s Jack Maine, washing down some pills with a slug of iced gin before stepping out under the swirling lights and throatily roaring some rawk against a backwash of crunching reverb. Unlike many similar semi-musical films, in which the tracks grind the storytelling to a halt, here the music, almost wholly originally composed for the film, does a fair bit of narrative heavy lifting from the beginning. Gently prophetic lyrics that are all about letting go of old things, longing for change when things are going well, and only really feeling like yourself when they’re going badly are complemented by Matthew Libatique‘s lovely, flare-y and immersive handheld concert sequences, that make Jack’s band look like hardworking ’70s folk-rockers and make Coachella feel like Woodstock.
After this first gig, Jack goes in search of yet another drink and winds up in a drag bar where the lip-syncing queens break their no-girls-onstage embargo only for Ally (Lady Gaga). And as soon as she opens her mouth it’s clear why: though she’s had too many knockbacks about not being pretty enough to believe she still has a shot at the big time, her talent is undeniable, even performing a cover of “La Vie En Rose” in heavy, drag-style makeup. Jack is instantly entranced, they spend a freewheeling night talking music and getting into fights, and next thing Jack’s inviting her onstage to sing the song she’d hesitantly tested on him, that he has arranged into a duet (2019 Best Song contender “Shallow”).
It’s peculiar that the whirlwind courtship section of the film, the scenes with Ally and her doting dad (a charming turn from Andrew Dice Clay, backed up by a Greek chorus of fellow drivers who hang out at his house shooting the shit) and the electrifying, genuinely neck-prickling live performances of this first half are so much more convincing and authentic-feeling than the downward spiral of the second part. “A Star is Born” in all its incarnations is always a bifurcated story, with the younger woman’s fall and rise pivoting around the same exact fulcrum as the man’s rise and fall. But this time out, as beautifully as he builds to that midpoint moment (marked here by the performance of 2019 Best Song winner, for my money, “Always Remember Us This Way”) Cooper’s hold is less sure from there on out.
Partly that’s to do with Ally’s rather too-rapid transformation from soulfully expressive, make-up-free singer-songwriter to sequinned, bottle-redhead Synthpop Barbie, which happens seemingly overnight once she’s signed by slick operator Rez Gavron (Rafi Gavron). Not to say insist that the film should have been more meta than it is — it is to Gaga’s credit as an actress that Ally can punch a guy in the face for trying to take Jack’s photo, and not once does the irony of her being the singer of “Paparazzi” come to mind. It’s also probably to the film’s benefit, as a classically-arranged, rags-to-riches tale. But it is also a little bit blander than what could have been. Given that Gaga is herself so much an overtly constructed idea of celebrity, with her meat dresses and wire-worked Super Bowl halftime shows, it’s an opportunity surprisingly missed that the film doesn’t comment on that more. Stars, after all, are not born, they’re made, and no one knows that better than Lady Gaga.
But instead, we get a truly fantastic Bradley Cooper performance, playing by far the most sympathetic version of this character we’ve yet seen — the type of heart-stoppingly gorgeous fantasy guy who not only whisks you to a gig in his private jet but also swipes the frozen peas at the checkout, the quicker to apply them to your swollen hand. With his speaking voice lowered to a gravelly growl (that incidentally makes his kinship with Sam Elliott that bit more believable) and his blue eyes bloodshot beneath straggly hair but still capable of a glance so piercingly adoring it’s like it solely has the power to make its recipient feel like a megastar (“I don’t care what you sing,” says one of the drag queens, “as long as you look at me while you’re doing it”), it’s Cooper who leaves the deepest impression. Unlike Kris Kristofferson‘s version, he doesn’t cheat on her, and unlike James Mason‘s or even Fredric March‘s, his Jack seems untainted by professional jealousy or the shattered ego of the svengali outgrown. This “A Star is Born” is less about her ambition, his hubris and the general Price of Fame than it is the gently heartsore story of a loving relationship destroyed by alcoholism, set to a killer soundtrack. But that itself is quite something; the star that is truly born here is Cooper as a director. [B+]