Bradley Cooper’s beguiling “A Star Is Born” puts us inside the music and the drama, with Cooper and Lady Gaga showing the kind of chemistry that invests us instantly in this pairing. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
What Bradley Cooper’s beguiling “A Star Is Born” is very, very good at is showing us how a song can transform a person, or a moment, and how that transformation just might make us fall in love with the person singing it, for a moment or for longer. Early on in the film, we meet Ally (Lady Gaga), a hotel waitress hurrying to finish her shift so she can go sing at a drag club. There, she performs Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose,” in a lived-in voice that takes on different colors as it grows like a flower. Watching her is Jackson Maine (Cooper), a hard-drinking singer/songwriter on fame’s downhill slope, sodden and sweaty and tired — until he hears her. He’s rapt, listening to her, finding a home in her voice. When the song’s over, they’re both changed.
This is the fourth go-round with the “A Star Is Born” story: It began in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, then in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason, and in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. The names and the situations changed a bit with each iteration, but the story remained the same: A male star on his way down meets a talented young woman just beginning her own climb; they fall in love, he mentors her, but his alcoholism gets in the way.
In other words, this is melodrama with songs, but of a very high order. And Cooper, in his directing debut, puts us inside the music and the drama and lets it swirl around us. In the concert scenes, we hear the dizzy-making buzz of the audience and the throb of the bass; we see how the backup musicians connect with and cue off each other. And he finds that same immediacy in quiet scenes. Early on, we watch Ally walking along a back alley, past the dumpsters, crooning a song to herself in the glow of the streetlight; it’s a tiny, gorgeous moment.
Actors-turned-directors are generally good with actors, and Cooper’s no exception; though this is mostly a two-person movie, he finds time to showcase a lovely aged-in-wood Sam Elliott performance. They’re playing half-brothers, which seems chronologically unlikely — but listen to how both of them speak in the same tones, so low their words seem to vibrate in the air.
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“A Star Is Born,” however, lives and dies with its central couple, and Cooper and Gaga show the kind of chemistry that invests us instantly in this pairing. It’s fascinating to watch the actor become a musician (Cooper does his own singing) and the musician/pop star becoming an actor, before our eyes. Something awakens in Cooper’s Jackson when he sings; his habitual blurriness is thrown away like a cape. And Gaga, whose charisma can barely be contained by the biggest movie screen, makes Ally sweet and tough and big-dreaming. As we watch her rise — essentially, becoming a version of Lady Gaga — we fall a little bit in love with her ourselves. “I just wanna take another look at you,” says an enthralled Jackson, twice — it’s a signature “Star Is Born” line — in the film. So do we.
★★★ “A Star Is Born,” with Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, Andrew Dice Clay, Anthony Ramos. Directed by Cooper, from a screenplay by Eric Roth, Cooper and Will Fetters, based on a story by William A. Wellman and Robert Carson. 136 minutes. Rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse. Opens Oct. 5 at multiple theaters.