Review: Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper shine bright in 'Star is Born'
The Hollywood classic gets a gritty update in Bradley Cooper's directorial debut
A grand showbiz romance about alcoholism, artistry and the value of having something to say, "A Star is Born" shows the grit underneath the glitz, and is a knockout piece of old-fashioned entertainment.
Co-writer, director and star Bradley Cooper leads the charge in this hardened remake of the 1937 Hollywood classic, last visited in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, and in 1954 (with Judy Garland and James Mason) prior.
Cooper brings a sense of authenticity and realism to the project, and he finds gold in his casting of Lady Gaga, who stuns as Ally, the "Star" at the film's center.
Gaga is a natural performer and an otherworldly talent, as anyone who's ever watched her perform on a concert stage is aware.
But her previous acting roles — a stilted, often silly performance on "American Horror Story: Hotel" and bit roles in Robert Rodriguez's "Machete" and "Sin City" sequels -- don't prepare you for her work here, a captivating, vulnerable, honest portrayal of a young artist swept off her feet and looking to find her grounding.
This is not Mariah Carey in "Glitter" or Christina Aguilera in "Burlesque," or any other pop-star-to-screen misfires. Gaga is absolutely the real deal, and is worthy of the Academy Award nomination she will likely receive for her work.
Her first scene with Cooper's Jackson Maine, a grizzled country star with a voice that sounds like a night spent chasing Jack Daniels with entire packs of Marlboro Reds, is one for the books.
Maine has just left a concert stage and is desperately looking for a bar to continue his boozing. He stumbles into a drag bar where Ally is about to take the stage. While belting out a dazzling rendition of "La Vie En Rose," she climbs on top of the bar, lays down on her back, and turns her head so her eyes meet Jackson's. Cooper frames their faces so that the magic between them pulsates off the screen.
A few beats later they're in a parking lot, sitting in the fluorescent glow emanating from a 24-hour grocery store. Ally, improvising a song she's been working on, floors Jackson not just with her voice, but with the power of her words. A romance is ignited, and soon Ally is sharing a concert stage with Jackson.
The first hour of "A Star is Born" soars; the concert scenes electrify, and Andrew Dice Clay is splendid as Ally's father, Lorenzo, a crooner who never made it and now chauffeurs for a living.
The second half is choppier, as Ally is force-fit into a glossy pop mold that Jackson rejects. He begs her to fight to keep her integrity intact.
If you don't dig deep into your (expletive) soul, you won't have legs," he warns her.
It's here where the mechanics of the plot prove slightly wonky. Ally's given a sniveling British manager (Rafi Gavron) who knows the path to pop stardom includes backup dancers, but he seems to have fallen out of a lesser rags-to-riches tale, like "Jem and the Holograms." Meanwhile, the sudden appearance of Dave Chappelle (playing Jackson's friend, Noodles) proves more distracting than helpful to the story.
Cooper effectively avoids showing outside scenes of Ally's rising fame, or the world's reaction to her; specifically, as Lorenzo and his pals watch a YouTube performance of Ally, they comment on the number of views on the video, but that number is never shown to viewers.
Cooper instead focuses on the relationship between Jackson and Ally, and the realities of their world. That gives the film an insular, intimate feel, an inside take on how it feels to catch, and be, a rising star.
Sam Elliott, playing Jackson's brother and right-hand man Bobby, ups the craggy realism of the story; you can easily see him as a backstage-type, cleaning up the messes of his reckless sibling.
Cooper and Gaga are magnetic; they carry the film and keep it from being a superficial look at celebrity. The cameos make it clear Cooper's navigating a world he's well versed in, but the story he's telling is focused on the souls of two people, not the artificial world that exists around them.
"A Star is Born" isn't perfect, but what Cooper and Gaga are able to do with the tale make it a delicate love story and triumphant tribute to the artistic spirit. "Stars" like this don't come around too often, but when they do, it's something special.
'A Star is Born'
Rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse
Running time: 137 minutes