Bradley Cooper goes Gaga in directing debut
Nobody ever lost money remaking “A Star is Born,” Hollywood’s favorite tragic romantic fable. Whether it’s any good doesn’t matter. To wit: The 1976 Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson remake wasn’t good, but you believed the archetypal show business lovers had musical talent.
The new “Star is Born” with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper is more like it. The toast of the 2018 festival circuit, this stringently apolitical, shamelessly effective pathos machine does the job in familiar ways that work like a tearstained charm.
The debuting feature director as well as cowriter and co-star, Cooper is very much a real director, with a genuine facility with filming musical numbers. We believe in the characters’ talents and spend time soaking them up without a lot of nervous, overcompensating editing. Between songs, he and Gaga make even the bluntest cliches about love and career and misery minty-fresh, all over again.
Cooper trained for months to lower his natural speaking voice a full octave, so that he plausibly sounds like Sam Elliott’s brother. (His guardianangel brother, a performer once upon a time, is played by, yes, Sam Elliott.) Cooper’s Jackson Maine is a roots-rock singer-songwriter battling chemical demons and a restless emptiness inside.
The actor-director has said in interviews that he wanted to avoid turning his version of “A Star is Born” into a tale of petty career jealousy — the established star giving in to a bitter, destructive envy of the newer star’s rise. Smart move. MPAA rating: R (for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse) Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
We first meet Jackson on tour, when he thinks he has his hearing loss, alcohol intake and pill-popping relatively under control. A waitress with that certain special something enters his wobbly orbit soon enough. Two bars into Ally’s drag-bar rendition of “La Vie En Rose” and the great man is hooked. Barely 15 minutes into “A Star is Born,” the star is, in fact, already born, once Maine coaxes a reluctant Ally on stage at one of his concerts.
In deft, shorthand storytelling strokes, the script by Cooper and Eric Roth, reworking Will Fetters’ earlier version, sweeps us straight into the story’s inevitable river of courtship, late-night duets, marriage, excessive drinking on his end, weary anticipation of worse to come on hers.
Although set in the present day, “A Star is Born” doesn’t quite make Ally a fully contemporaryseeming character. Gaga’s easy, offhanded command of the screen matches up well with Cooper’s sincere, straight-ahead portrayal of a decent man undermining his own talent. (The scene where Jackson, in a drunken stupor, calls his wife “ugly” is properly harsh, but it also makes Ally seem like a sap for sticking with him. I guess I’m judge-y that way.) Ally gets too few chances to really speak her piece, or complicate the script’s depiction of the heroine as a noble, longsuffering caretaker of a wreck.
On the other hand, it’s juicy melodrama played with real feeling. Nobody goes to any version of “A Star is Born” for crushing realism, or nuance. You go for the heartfelt vocals, and the nose-to-nose verbal altercations between Gaga and Cooper, or between Cooper and Elliott.
Late in the game, Elliott says: “It’s the same story, told over and over.” His character is talking about songwriters and the finite number of notes they have at their disposal. But he may as well be speaking of “A Star is Born,” the love story, fatalistic yet tasty, that keeps coming back like a song. Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
Roots rocker Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) duets with newcomer Ally (Lady Gaga) in the latest “A Star is Born.”