“A STAR IS BORN” — 3½ stars — Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, Andrew Dice Clay; R (language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse); in general release
Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born” may not give birth to any new stars, but for many people, it may redefine one.
Though this may not be much of a shock to longtime fans, for those of us who associate Lady Gaga with outlandish public appearances in meat dresses, her soulful down-to-earth performance in this film is borderline revelatory.
If the new musical drama's title sounds familiar, it should. This is the third remake of the 1937 film starring Janet Gaynor — Gaga follows in the footsteps of Judy Garland and Barbara Streisand — and like its predecessors, it follows the rise of one star and the fall of another.
In addition to playing a new role as director, Cooper acts alongside Gaga as Jackson Maine, a rock superstar at the top of his game — at least when he’s onstage wailing guitar solos and growling into a microphone. But backstage, like so many others before him, he’s collapsing into alcoholism and substance abuse.
One night after a show, Jackson staggers into a bar in search of a drink and discovers Ally (Lady Gaga), a local waitress who moonlights as a lounge singer. Her rendition of “La Vie en Rose” blows him away, his fame blows her away and their relationship is off to the races.
By the next night, Ally has quit her day job and followed Jackson off to his next gig, where she joins him on stage as they hash their way through a new song that becomes an instant success on YouTube. Ally is a sensation, an overnight pop superstar, and soon she is also Jackson’s wife.
It’s around this time you get the sense this isn’t going to end very well. A parade of red flags mirror all of the zero-to-60, too-good-to-be-true events. In public, strangers shower Jackson with praise, but behind the scenes, he bickers with his long-suffering older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott) over old demons, and his addictions betray a nasty jealous streak. Even Ally’s association with an ambitious and calculating producer named Rez (Rafi Gavron) suggests the “big life” will soon rob her of her identity.
In a way, Jackson and Ally are two stars passing in the night, and the film’s title only accounts for half of the story’s trajectory. If you are familiar with any of the other films, you’ll understand where it’s all going, and even if you aren’t, the signs are obvious enough. Cooper has adapted his film for a 21st-century setting, but he’s stayed true to its tragic roots.
For a first-time directorial effort, it’s clear Cooper has poured everything into his film. From the opening sequence on an arena stage, “A Star is Born” feels like it takes place in its own stylish and intimate world, and that sense is only shaken by occasional references to real-life pop culture icons (at one point Ally performs on “Saturday Night Live”).
The biggest takeaway, though — and perhaps the biggest surprise — is Gaga’s performance as Ally. In a way, what she’s doing here feels reminiscent of Cher ditching her diva crown in the mid-80s for memorable on-screen performances in films like “Mask” and “Moonstruck.”
At the same time, there's a bizarre irony watching the music business morph Ally into a choreographed pop starlet not unlike Gaga herself. There’s a comment being made here, and I’m not exactly sure what it is.
As another take on what feels like a mythic tale, “A Star is Born” may not score huge points for originality, but there is no disputing its excellence in execution, from directing to writing to performing. There are a lot of movies that go behind the curtains of the music business, and this is one of the best.
Content advisory: Like the previous “A Star is Born,” which featured Kris Kristofferson and Streisand in the lead roles, Cooper’s film draws an R rating, primarily for steady adult profanity and some flashes of female nudity. There’s also some comic violence when Ally punches out one of Jackson’s unruly fans at a bar early in the film; running time: 135 minutes.