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

Sunday Times - - Contents - © The Tele­graph, Lon­don

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.


A Star Is Born is on cir­cuit

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in ’A Star is Born’.

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