Film Review: A Star Is Born

Bradley Cooper makes an outstanding directing debut and Lady Gaga proves herself a movie star in this electrifying remake of an oft-told show-business tale.
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When the fourth remake of A Star Is Born—it began life as What Price Hollywood? in 1932—was first announced, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, you couldn’t be blamed for being dubious. Could Cooper sing? Could Gaga act? And could this hoary, melodramatic Hollywood tale still work in 2018? The answer to all three questions is a decisive yes.

Cooper makes an exceptional directing debut with this second version set in the music business (that was the difference Barbra Streisand brought to her 1976 remake). What’s more, he’s thoroughly convincing as a still-dynamic but hard-living rock star—who knew he could pull that off? And Lady Gaga (aka Stefani Germanotta) sheds her avant-garde-glam image to persuasively play a caterer who moonlights as an aspiring singer, not unlike the struggling performer she once was before her youthful breakout.  The bonus here is that she and Cooper have tremendous chemistry: They make you believe in their characters’ connection in a way that glides over the formula elements of the original 1930s story by William A. Wellman and Robert Carson.

Cooper plays veteran rocker Jackson Maine, who we first see downing pills and a drink as he gets ready to take the stage at an arena concert. Post-performance, having run out of liquor, he asks his driver to stop at the first bar he sees. What he doesn’t know is that it’s drag karaoke night—but one of the performers, friends with the crowd, is an actual woman who can really sing. That’s Ally (Gaga), who proceeds to do a knockout rendition of “La Vie en Rose” that leaves Jack awestruck. Ally’s work buddy Ramon (Anthony Ramos of Hamilton and She’s Gotta Have It) persuades Jack to come backstage, and the spark is instantaneous. As the night continues (including a physical altercation at a cop bar Jack frequents), Jack draws Ally out of her shell, learning that she writes songs she’s too timid to perform. She’s convinced her prominent nose will bar her from a successful career; he tells her she’s beautiful.

Before long, Jack is whisking Ally away to his next big gig, and coerces her into joining him onstage to perform the song she sang for him that first night. A video of the duet goes viral and, yes, a star is born.

Jack becomes Ally’s mentor, and for a while their partnership is pure bliss as she gets to blossom onstage as his collaborator. But then she’s recruited by Rez (Rafi Gavron), a high-powered manager with big plans for her solo career. Ally is groomed for stardom, packaged in a way that’s all too familiar in this age of image sometimes superseding the music. And that drives a wedge between her and Jack, jealous and resentful despite his ardor for his gifted discovery. Anyone who’s seen the previous iterations of this tale knows it does not end well.

A big part of what makes the new A Star Is Born work is its naturalism. As his co-stars attested at a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival, Bradley Cooper is truly an actors’ director, creating an acting environment so free his co-stars sometimes didn’t know whether they were being directed by Bradley or Jack. That seemingly effortless camaraderie is there in every scene, from the delightful drag-bar sequence, to the moments of Ally at home with her dad (a surprising Andrew Dice Clay), a car-service driver, and his buddies, to Jack’s visit with an old musician friend (Dave Chappelle) who’s left the business for a tranquil life with a wife and son. And let’s not forget the contribution of Sam Elliott as Jack’s much older brother Bobby, himself a talented musician who’s given up his dreams to manage the career of his sibling and is running out of patience with Jack’s out-of-control drinking. It’s a multi-faceted role that seems destined to get the gravel-voiced Elliott his first Oscar nomination.

A Star Is Born also works purely as a musical: The songs, written by Gaga, Cooper, Lukas Nelson, Jason Aldean and Mark Ronson, are all terrific and will make a helluva soundtrack album, and Lady Gaga’s performances are electrifying. Combine that with the genuine-feeling romance between the co-stars and the heartbreak of its dissolution, and you have one soaring and searing piece of movie entertainment.

In Toronto, Lady Gaga said she and Cooper shook hands on this promise to each other: “You are an actress.” “You are a singer.” That pact has produced one of the best, most satisfying movies of 2018.