With their phenomenal “A Star Is Born,” Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper upend expectations and spectacularly freshen up a stock Hollywood story.
Simultaneously an immersive concert film, enchanting romance and tear-jerking rock fantasy, “A Star Is Born” (★★★★ out of four; rated R; in theaters nationwide Friday) is a dynamic multifaceted showcase for Gaga and Cooper, who makes his directing debut a thing of melodic, masterful beauty. Together, they form an electrifying duo in one of the best movies of 2018 and the finest musical since 2002’s “Chicago.”
Cooper isn’t the first one to go down the film’s familiar road: This is the fourth “A Star Is Born,” which tosses in references and story points from earlier iterations – notably, the 1954 film with Judy Garland and James Mason, as well as the 1976 version starring Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand. But the way Cooper lays bare the characters’ hang-ups, flaws and vices takes the well-trodden melodramatic concept – young starlet on the rise, aging icon heading the other way – and creates something extraordinary.
Like an edgy, amped-up cross between Roy Orbison and Garth Brooks, countrified roots rocker Jackson Maine (Cooper) lives hard and drinks harder. One night after a sold-out show, he winds up at a local drag bar and falls in love – sonically and otherwise – with Ally (Gaga) as she sings “La Vie en Rose.” A hotel waitress who hates her job, men and the music industry (not necessarily in that order), Ally is secretly a heck of a songwriter but shy about it, though Jack tells her she has “something to say and a way to say it so people listen to it.”
He invites Ally to a show, then pulls her on the stage to sing the ultracatchy “Shallow,” which she wrote partly with Jack in mind. What’s a potentially corny sequence is instead a truly exhilarating, goosebump-inducing knockout moment.
The first hour of a “A Star Is Born” is especially satisfying, with Ally becoming a viral hit and each acting as the other’s muse. But the downward spiral strikes like a dissonant chord: Jack struggles with alcoholism and hearing loss from tinnitus, while Ally quickly finds A-list fame as a mainstream pop star (she pretty much becomes Lady Gaga), disappointing musical purist Jack and driving a wedge between them.
Soundtrack nerds will love all of it. Gaga and Cooper collaborated with others on the outstanding original numbers, including the down-and-dirty jam “Black Eyes” and weepy ballad “I’ll Never Love Again.”
Just as key as the top-notch songs is a first-rate supporting cast, including Sam Elliott as Jack’s conflicted brother and tour manager, Dave Chappelle as Jack’s oldest confidant and Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s caring father.
“A Star Is Born,” a no-brainer for a best picture nomination with strong Oscar contenders for best actor and actress, is most noteworthy for its two stars reborn. Stripped down and vulnerable, Gaga proves she’s as much an acting powerhouse as she is a musical standout. Meanwhile, Cooper turns in his best performance ever as a growling, flawed superstar who’s the beating heart of the film. (Plus, while Gaga is obviously a great singer, Cooper’s brawny vocals are a revelation.)
Perhaps most impressive is Cooper’s splendid directing and storytelling choices. He intriguingly emphasizes the artists’ point of view rather than the audience’s in the musical scenes, shows a knack for making everything count (from background visuals to song lyrics) and has something to say about music, love, celebrity and the transporting triumph of making a joyful noise.