A musical even haters will love
Lady Gaga plays a very credible rising star in Bradley Cooper’s refreshing directorial debut of the fourth remake of A Star is Born
Music is essentially 12 notes between any octave — 12 notes and the octave repeats, Sam Elliott’s gruff industry veteran advises Ally (Lady Gaga), A Star Is Born’s young singer on the rise. “It’s the same story told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer this world is how they see those 12 notes. That’s it.” This isn’t just a neat summing-up of an entire art form: it’s also a nifty rationale for the existence of this fourth version, and third remake, of Hollywood’s archetypal rise-and-fall romance.
The first, directed by William A Wellman and starring Janet Gaynor and Frederic March, came out in 1937, and was repurposed as a musical in 1951 by George Cukor, with Judy Garland and James Mason as the dewy ingenue and dwindling matinee idol whose professional trajectories bisect as their love-lives converge.
The 1976 take, starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristoffersen, moved from the film world to the music business — and it’s there, on spotlit stages and in hushed recording studios, in which the 2018 version also unfolds. But happily, director Bradley Cooper has taken his own script’s advice to put a personal spin on those 12 notes.
The story of A Star Is Born may be as old as show business, but it is also electrifyingly fresh — a well-known melody given vivid, searching new force.
In addition to making his by-anymeasure extraordinary directorial debut here, Cooper co-stars as Jackson Maine, a country music superstar whose career seems to be cresting as the film begins.
After a swig of vodka and a handful of pills, he strides on stage and plays a crunchy blues rock number to a capacity crowd, and in the fervour it’s hard to tell where the wailing of his guitar stops and the audience’s screaming starts.
Afterwards he unwinds in a secluded dive bar — a drag bar, in fact — and watches Lady Gaga’s Ally, a waitress moonlighting as a cabaret singer, croon La Vie en Rose, against an intoxicating, ruby red backdrop. His face lights up with a mix of admiration and desire: he wants to see this young woman in his bed, but also wants to see her thrive.
They leave together, wander the sleeping city, and talk about their lives in a car park. It’s a scene most films would skim through, but Cooper luxuriates in it, allowing both characters to enjoy a Cinderella moment.
Except for Ally, when midnight strikes, the glass slipper doesn’t fall off. The following day, she and her best friendstroke-chaperone Ramon (Anthony Ramos) are whisked to Jackson’s next gig by private jet. He ushers her on stage, cedes the microphone, and destiny beckons.
In a sense, what follows is exactly what you would expect: Ally’s career lifts off in a way that partly mirrors Gaga’s own, and also has overtones of Amy Winehouse — not least in that Ally’s father, played by Andrew Dice Clay, is a chauffeur with a Sinatra fixation. And meanwhile Jackson’s own star begins to wane, through alcoholism, paranoia, the toll of selfie-snappers, and an inability to face down the ghosts of his past.
But though it hews to a familiar, arguably predictable shape, it does so from an exhilarating ringside perspective. Scenes thump with truth, from the stadium setpieces, which were shot at a number of real-life gigs including last year’s Glastonbury Festival, and have the live-wire fizz of Scorsese’s concert films, to the intimate sequences back- and off-stage.
It helps that Cooper and Gaga — real name Stefani Germanotta — are such a wellmatched screen couple: they have serious yowch-my-fingers chemistry, while her performance has a rawness and freeness that roughens up his more actorly approach.
For any singer, following Judy Garland in your first major movie role would be a nightmare brief, but Gaga more than meets it, even paying gorgeous, subtle tribute by singing the opening few lines of a certain show tune as the film’s title fades up on screen.
Cooper’s baritone, meanwhile, has never been gravellier, often dropping into the range of an idling cement truck. He is wellmatched with Gaga, but just as good with Sam Elliot, whose bluff, bittersweet performance as Jackson’s manager and (much) older brother ranks among the 74year-old’s very finest work.
The new songs were written by Cooper, Gaga and a handful of music-industry names, including the country singer Jason Isbell and the record producer and sometime Winehouse associate Mark Ronson. With the exception of a (deliberately) tacky pop track, whose lyrics grapple with the age-old question “Why you gotta come around me with an ass like that?”, there isn’t a lull in the set list.
Some, from opener By The Wayside to recurring ballad Maybe It’s Time To Let The Old Ways Die, sound like totally plausible hits, while Gaga’s big final number, performed almost entirely in a single-take close-up, gives the film the knee-weakening send-off it earns. This is a musical for lovers and loathers of the genre: deluxe studio entertainment like they used to make.
AFTER A SWIG OF VODKA AND A HANDFUL OF PILLS, HE STRIDES ON STAGE AND PLAYS A CRUNCHY BLUES ROCK NUMBER
A Star Is Born is on circuit
Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in ’A Star is Born’.