The new version of “A Star Is Born,” starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, is the fourth iteration of this old warhorse. I’m guessing most audiences under 30 will not have seen the preceding three, rendering this latest version a newfound experience. But even granting that, the film’s dramatic trajectory – one star rises as another falls – is predictable pathos. The surprise is that, at least for its first half, this newest “A Star Is Born” is so powerfully fresh.
Cooper doesn’t only costar; he collaborated on the screenplay, does his own singing, and also makes an auspicious directorial debut. He plunges us into the action right from the start with a raucous amphitheater concert featuring Jackson Maine (Cooper), a country rock superstar who at this point in his career requires liquor more than adulation. Coming down from the show, he wends his way into a local bar, where he is captivated by a waitress, Ally (Lady Gaga), singing “La Vie en Rose” to the boozy patrons.
This sequence has the tired trappings of “meeting cute,” except that Jackson’s fascination with her is palpable. Stunned as she is to be in his presence, Ally is no wide-eyed groupie. When they’re alone and he coaxes her into singing one of her songs, she hesitates at first and then is caught up in her own spiritedness. It’s a tender and passionate moment, and it seals the connection between them. For Jackson, Ally’s talent authenticates his desire for her. “Everyone is an artist. Everyone is talented at something,” he tells her. “But not everyone has something to say.”
He takes Ally on tour with him, and she rises to the occasion, becoming a star in her own right. In the process, she acquires a sharky manager (Rafi Gavron) and is prodded into a slick makeover, complete with crimson hair and calisthenic dance moves. Her earlier soulfulness becomes more blatantly pop. The odd thing here is that, even though it seems designed to do so, the movie doesn’t really castigate Ally for this pop makeover, perhaps because this is, after all, Lady Gaga, a performer not known for her introversion, playing the part. The filmmakers, who also include co-screenwriters Eric Roth and Will Fetters, set up a potential rift between Ally’s music and Jackson’s more countrified art and then drop it.
It’s not altogether believable that Ally would be so selfless in her devotion to Jackson as he slides ever downward; any resentment Jackson might have for Ally’s success likewise barely registers. In spite of all this, the matchup works because in this love story, the love really hits home. As opposed to the earlier versions of this story – featuring Fredric March and Janet Gaynor in 1937, Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954, and Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976 – alcoholism is really delved into here as a disease. Jackson is piercingly aware that he has let Ally down with his public drunkenness and outrages, and Ally wants him to know that, in the larger sense, it’s not his fault. Because it’s more psychologically articulated, Jackson’s descent is more emotionally compelling than Ally’s ascent, which is too rapid and generic. Cooper’s performance, with its dark depths and hollows, comes as something of a surprise. (So does a great cameo from a low-key Dave Chappelle as a rocker buddy of Jackson’s who gave up the business.) Cooper connects with Jackson’s torment without once resorting to easy posturing.
It should not, however, come as a surprise that Lady Gaga is as good as she is here. Singer-performers have often been naturals on screen – Bette Midler, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Willie Nelson, Dean Martin, and Mary J. Blige, to list only several examples – and why not? What they do onstage is acting at its essence. I’m not sure how she pulled it off, but Lady Gaga manages to create a character who is believably both tough-minded and tenderhearted.
When, near the end, in the film’s most sharply written scene, Ally’s manager tells Jackson that, for the sake of her career, he has to exit her life, we can see what’s coming, and yet the brutality of the words hits home. I wish the middle section of this film didn’t sag so much, and I wish the narrative wasn’t geared up to be such an irredeemable downer. Even more so than the other versions, this “A Star Is Born” can seem like a long, slow slog. But there’s real vitality in Cooper’s direction in the early passages, and, in the performances of the costars, an understanding of the ravages of romance that justifies putting ourselves through the paces of this sad story yet again. Grade: B+ (Rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity, and substance abuse.)