Review: Review: Bradley Cooper sings, Lady Gaga acts, and their version of ‘A Star Is Born’ is a total knockout
Passionate, emotional and fearless, the gangbusters “A Star Is Born” is poised to become the movie of the moment — the one everyone has to see right now.
But aside from the incandescent, white-hot performances by stars Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, the best thing about this film is how unreservedly it embraces and enhances its old school Hollywood legacy.
That begins with its nerve in taking on one of most venerable of the studio system’s narratives — first filmed in 1937 (unless you count 1932’s famously similar “What Price Hollywood?”) with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, followed by Judy Garland and James Mason starring in the most celebrated 1954 version and Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in the most recent 1976 attempt.
But more than that, “Star” succeeds as well as it does because it’s made by people — starting with director and co-writer Cooper — who are unapologetic about their belief in these traditional movie stories. This is a team that understands the emotional satisfactions that skillfully contrived fantasies can convey, and who are damned good at putting them up on the screen.
The result is a show business rush so pure it would be illegal if it were a drug. Though the film’s peek behind the celebrity-curtain love story inevitably falters a bit in the second half, the emotional waves it has already created manage to carry us over the rough spots.
Initial credit must go to the screenwriters, the Oscar-winning veteran Eric Roth as well as director Cooper and his co-writer Will Fetters.
With an assist from the Streisand version — which changed the protagonists from actors to singers — they’ve convinced us to buy into the familiar premise of love between a star on the rise and one on the way down. As ads for the 1937 version neatly summarized, “You will be shocked by the price that must be paid in heartbreak and tears for every moment of triumph in Hollywood.” Who knew?
A three-time Oscar nominee, Cooper took a break from acting for others to make his directing debut with “Star,” and his understanding of the dynamics of the story underline what a wise choice that was. Cooper is unafraid in the face of pumped-up emotion and has assembled just the cast to bring it off, starting with himself.
The actor plays Jackson Maine, a rock god down to his sweat-soaked beard and unruly hair, who turns to pills and alcohol before wailing on his avocado green guitar as massive crowds swoon. (The film’s concert footage, filmed at Coachella, Glastonbury and other festivals by cinematographer Matthew Libatique, is rousingly well done.)
Cooper’s easygoing charisma is a major asset here, as is his commitment to sounding convincing as a country-inflected rocker for songs that were recorded live during filming. That meant months of vocal work that lowered the actor’s range a full octave.
Singing, obviously, was not going to be an issue for megastar Lady Gaga, but what is remarkable about her splendid star turn as the up and coming Ally is the convincing vulnerability and naturalness, including wearing minimal makeup, she brings to the ordinary side of the part. Ally’s nervous tentativeness is so convincing that when she unleashes her powerhouse voice the effect is overpowering.
The on-screen chemistry between these two is electrifying, and director Cooper, whose past performances — “Silver Linings Playbook” especially — have demonstrated a generosity toward his co-stars, knows it. “A Star Is Born” takes its time, hurrying nothing (it’s close to an hour until the first kiss), unable to believe the good fortune of its pairing.
It’s a monumental coincidence, naturally, that brings these two together. Desperate for yet another drink after a concert, Jack has his limo stop at what turns out to be a bar specializing in drag performance. Ally’s gay best friend Ramon (Anthony Ramos breathes new life into this familiar role) recognizes him and ushers him in.
Ally used to be a waitress at the bar and, as chance would have it, is about to go out and sing. But it won’t be one of her own compositions — she is too tentative about her talent, not to mention her looks, to try that. She opts instead for one of the most iconic songs ever (and a Lady Gaga favorite) Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose.”
Naturally Jack is smitten by Ally’s talent and beauty, and they spend hours together, ending the night in a supermarket parking lot, confessing their fears. Jack encourages Ally so much that she comes out with a few lyrics of a song she’s been working on.
After that, Ally thinks she’s going to go back to her normal life living with dad Lorenzo (Andrew Dice Clay), who runs a limousine service out of their home, but Jack will have none of it.
He dispatches his private jet — really — to take Ally and Ramon to his next sold-out concert. Nothing will do but for Jack to call her on stage to perform “Shallow,” her parking lot song and the film’s signature anthem, along with him. It is quite the Hollywood moment.
Of course there are things Jack isn’t telling Ally — including the extent of his substance abuse problem, his increasing deafness, his fractious relationship with his half-brother and manager Bobby (a wonderful Sam Elliott). But, hey, no one said love was supposed to be easy.
Speaking of love, if “A Star Is Born” has a problem, it’s that the coming together of these two is so right that the film has a hard time making it equally plausible when the current starts flowing the other way.
Things that felt logical for James Mason and Judy Garland in 1954 do not work as well in 2018, and the film stumbles a bit trying to have it all make sense, especially as relates to the ambivalent role superstar manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) comes to play in Ally’s career.
Finally, however, these are quibbles, nothing more, in a triumphant revival both of a specific story and a particular style of filmmaking. Jack may sing “maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,” but “A Star Is Born” says not so fast, not so fast at all.
‘A Star Is Born’
Rating: R, for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse
Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes
Playing: Opens Friday, in general release
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