I had two big questions going into the new version of “A Star Is Born.” First, can Bradley Cooper sing? Second, is Lady Gaga a movie star? I’m happy to say the answer to both is yes.
Cooper is Jackson Maine, an alt-country star with problems. He’s losing his hearing, has developed tinnitus, and is a serious alcoholic. As the movie opens, he’s performing in concert and we discover that Cooper can not only sing pretty well, but play the guitar, too.
After the gig, on his way through downtown, he tells his driver to pull over in front of a random bar so he can get a drink. It turns out to be a drag club, but it serves alcohol, so he’s happy to throw one back and watch the show. The second performer he sees is not a man in drag, but a woman with pipes. Her name is Ally (Gaga), and he’s enraptured by her amazing performance of “La Vie En Rose,” originally made famous by Edith Piaf. Afterwards, he sticks around to meet her. There’s an immediate connection, and our story is off and running.
This is the fourth version of “A Star Is Born.” The 1937 original with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March wasn’t a musical. The best version was made in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason. The latter didn’t sing, but Garland’s songs more than made up for it, particularly on “The Man Who Got Away.” In 1976, Barbra Streisand and her then-husband Jon Peters re-purposed the story as a star vehicle she directed with Kris Kristofferson co-starring. Streisand and Paul Williams won an Oscar for their song “Evergreen.”
In each case, the plot centers on a famous guy whose career is waning when he meets a talented young woman he steers into a superstar career. That’s not the only common thread in the three musical versions. In each case, the actresses who starred in them — like their characters — were all told early on in real life that they weren’t good-looking enough to make it in show business. Each of them proved those predictions completely wrong, as they had already become big stars even before their productions began.
We already knew Gaga can sing, and she proved her acting chops on “American Horror Story” in 2011, but now she’s proving she can be the female lead in a major motion picture. Later in the story, Ally becomes a pop star in the Gaga fashion, complete with dancers, choreography, and flashy costumes. I prefer the earlier, raw, less-makeup version of Ally, who is much more natural and appealing, but throughout, Gaga deftly portrays the emotional roller-coaster of her character well.
After his back-to-back-to-back success with “Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle,” and “American Sniper,” Cooper had built up enough power in Hollywood to not only star in and write some of the songs for “A Star Is Born,” but also direct it, which turns out to be firmly in his skill set, too. My only complaints about his camera work were the shaky hand-held shots in the first concert scenes, but he quickly switched to a steadier view for the rest of the movie, which looks beautiful.
The other thing that bothered me early on was that, as Jackson, Cooper pushed his voice way down so that he sounded like he was doing a Sam Elliott impersonation. But about 20 minutes in, Sam Elliott himself showed up as Jackson’s (much) older brother Bobby and, damn, Elliott’s voice is even lower — and we got a nice meta-joke about Jack stealing Bobby’s voice.
Cooper carries a lot of the dramatic weight of “A Star Is Born,” but he gets good supporting performances out of not just Gaga, but also Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father (surrounded by a bunch of character actors you’ll recognize from a hundred other movies). Dave Chapelle is impressive in a small role as an old friend of Jackson’s, Eddie Griffin shows up as a preacher, and Rafi Gavron brings some heat later in the movie as Rez, the manager who steers Ally’s career.
I’ll always have a place in my heart for the restored version of the 1954 “A Star Is Born,” directed by George Cukor, but this one is a helluva crowd-pleasing movie. Cooper and Gaga make it seem fresh, and their chemistry is inarguable. Even as Ally’s career soars while Jackson’s crashes, there’s still something that draws them together and makes us care. The music’s pretty good, too, so the soundtrack will be huge. Gaga co-wrote 11 of the songs, while Cooper contributed 4. Their duet on “Shallow” will likely be the first hit and a guaranteed Oscar nominee.
I give this version of “A Star Is Born” a 9 out of 10. It will be on my Best Of 2018 list.
Note: There’s controversy about Jon Peters being listed as a producer of this version of the movie, too, because he’s caught up in #MeToo allegations by five women who claim he sexually assaulted them. You can read about that matter here.