Theatrically speaking, A Star Is Born is a tale as old as time as this is the third remake of an original that hit screens over eight decades ago. The framework remains the same in the story of love, addiction, and celebrity. To his considerable credit, Bradley Cooper finds a way to inject some life into this melodramatic musical journey. He does so with his own work in front of the camera and his direction of his costar. It feels odd to claim this is a star making performance from Lady Gaga, who happens to be one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. While we knew her amazing vocal abilities and showmanship, this picture proves she’s an equally impressive actor.
Cooper is Jackson Maine, a country rock star with a severe alcohol addiction. He’s already well-established in his field and selling out stadiums. One night his restless spirit after a gig leads him to a drag bar. Actually it’s more his desire to find a place that serves drinks. In that unlikely establishment is where he discovers Ally (Gaga). She waitresses there and she’s the only non queen allowed to belt out tunes like “La Vie en rose”. Jackson is smitten with her voice and with her.
Their chance encounter is where Ally’s star is born and what transpires in the first half is a thrilling whirlwind for her and the audience. This section provides the most satisfying moments. She’s whisked all over the country with her new mentor and love interest. Cooper’s direction and the screenplay from him, Eric Roth, and Will Fetters manages to match Jackson’s energy in the picture’s pacing. As Ally begins to branch out of his shadow to more pop friendly (and far less soulful tracks) with the help of a British manager (Rafi Gavron), Jackson’s deeply rooted issues become more pronounced. While the second half here provides more dramatic heft, it also does so with more familiar themes. Ally’s storyline curiously becomes less compelling as her beau spirals out of control.
Sam Elliot is Jackson’s much older brother and manager, who serves as a complicated father figure (and vocal inspiration). In Cooper’s performance, he drops his voice a couple octaves and his reported extensive vocal training pays off. This doesn’t feel like an actor trying to masquerade as a singer. His work here is remarkable in every facet. We know Gaga hardly needs that kind of training. It’s expected that she’ll nail her songs and she does. Yet she also proves herself to be a natural actress and her emotional range matches her more experienced counterpart. The supporting cast also includes two famed comedians with Dave Chappelle turning up briefly as an ex-musician who’s happily left the business and Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s chauffeur father.
The chemistry of the two leads is the reason the latest Star often shines, especially early on. To borrow the title from Gaga’s debut album, the film’s beats become more traditional when it moves to the dark side of the fame monster. So while we have a well-worn narrative before us, Cooper and his muse succeed in making this worth taking another look at.
*** (out of four)