In the span of an incredible eighty-one years, enduring bittersweet love story "A Star Is Born" has been made into four Hollywood features, each one a multiple Oscar nominee or winner; the 1937 original starred Janet Gaynor and Fredric Marsh, 1954's paired Judy Garland with James Mason, and 1976's saw Barbra Streisand joining forces with Kris Kristofferson. The narrative trajectory will be familiar for viewers who have seen those previous renditions, but this 2018 update may be the best one yet, a passionate, authentic, altogether relevant saga proving there is still plenty of life left in this tale of fame, addiction, and sacrifice. The source of the electricity radiating off the screen is twofold; Bradley Cooper's directorial debut is so muscular and assured as to appear to be the work of an established filmmaking great, and the onscreen chemistry between himself and an astonishing Lady Gaga (2014's "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
") positively soars. Theyand, really, the entire castbring each moment to life, not a tinge of artifice to be found.
Unready to call it a night after performing a big L.A. concert, hard-drinking country rocker Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) stumbles into a drag bar just in time to watch the seductively voiced Ally (Lady Gaga) perform a cover of Edith Piaf's "La Vie en Rose." He is instantly drawn to her, first for her singing ability and stage presence, and even more so when he meets her for drinks afterward sans make-up and hair dye. Ally is a struggling singer-songwriter who has been told she's not pretty enough to make it in showbiza claim about which Jackson staunchly disagrees. When Jackson coaxes Ally onto the stage to perform an original song she shared with him the night before, it is the beginning of a whirlwind romance between an established musician whose erratic behavior and substance abuse are fast dragging him down and a rapidly rising star navigating the tricky waters of a business threatening to steal away her individuality and talent for mass-market, dime-a-dozen soullessness.
"A Star Is Born" spellbinds with its tremendous soundtrack (much of the original music was performed live during filming and co-written by Bradley Cooper and/or Lady Gaga), but the lush, frequently memorable earworms wouldn't mean as much were they not used in service of a worthwhile story and characters who deeply resonate. The relationship between Jackson and Ally beautifully takes its time, just as the screenplay, credited to Eric Roth (2011's "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
") and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters (2014's "The Best of Me
"), is interested in listening to themtheir viewpoints, the give-and-take of their burgeoning courtship, and their ultimate concerns for each other.
His voice a few octaves lower, much of his mannerisms surely not his own, Bradley Cooper (2016's "War Dogs
") becomes Jackson Maine through and through while shedding all movie-star predilections except one: his innate charisma as a performer who, here, cannot be caught acting. If Jackson becomes at all jealous of Ally's success, it is overshadowed by his desire to see her prosper as herself, appreciated for who she is and her own natural talents rather than as a manufactured pop-princess whose songs no longer come from her heart. The film wisely understands that although Jackson loves Ally, the demons he has been battling are vicious and his disease one that not everyone is able to surmount. Cooper achingly bares his soul in portraying Jackson, his pain and struggles wholeheartedly sticking with the viewer after the end credits have rolled.
Perhaps even more eye-opening than Cooper's outstanding turn is Lady Gaga's; save for a few bit parts and an impressively vampy Golden Globe-winning role on "American Horror Story: Hotel," she has never been given the chance to truly spread her wings as an actor. That someone of her larger-than-life caliber is able to thoroughly disappear into the role of Ally to the point where one often forgets it's Lady Gaga may be her greatest triumph. She is intuitive and giving as an actor, someone who appears to be listening and responding and living each moment for the first time. Gaga understands Ally's insecurities and her professional drive while developing a character nevertheless separate from her real-life persona. Just as she eats up the stage, she devours the screennot in a scene-hogging way (she blends seamlessly into the rest of the ensemble), but as someone undoubtedly meant to be exactly where she is. In every way possible, this is a breakthrough performance on a level rarely seen.
"A Star Is Born" is an emotionally intimate journey that makes itself feel like an event. Quixotically lensed by cinematographer Matthew Libatique (2017's "mother!
"), the picture paves a personal path while nevertheless paying tribute in naturalistic ways to all past incarnations of this story. Surrounding the remarkable work of Cooper and Gaga is an ace supporting cast led by Sam Elliott (2014's "Draft Day
"), heartbreaking as Jackson's increasingly concerned older brother Bobby; Andrew Dice Clay (2013's "Blue Jasmine
"), warmly ingratiating as Ally's limo-driver father Lorenzo; and Anthony Ramos (2017's "Patti Cake$"), inviting and sympathetic as Ally's best friend Ramon. For a film which so sublimely allows itself to breathe, covering expansive territory in an economic, unrushed 139-minute package, only the crucial last ten minutes feel a touch rushed. A poignant final scene comes too quickly, undercutting the sheer catharsis director Bradley Cooper strives to capture. Fortunately, all that Lady Gaga's Ally has been through and all she is about to face head-on registers powerfully on her face and in her transcendental voice. A star, as they say, has most definitely been born.