The skeptics scoffed when they heard Bradley Cooper had decided to make his directorial debut with yet another remake of “A Star is Born.” What could this relative newcomer to the Hollywood hierarchy possibly bring to one of show business’ Ur-myths of ambition, self-destruction and the cruel vagaries of fame?
Admittedly, casting Lady Gaga as an unknown singer who becomes a pop sensation was a masterstroke. But would anyone seriously buy the boyishly handsome Cooper as a wasted, washed-up has-been?
It turns out Cooper is not only a judicious and instinctive storyteller behind the camera, but he delivers one of the finest performances of his career in “A Star Is Born,” a well-seasoned, handsomely cured slab of showbiz schmaltz that hits all the right pleasure centers. With equal parts glitz and grit, Cooper has successfully navigated the most perilous shoals of making a classic narrative his own, managing to create one of its best iterations to date.
Appropriately enough, “A Star is Born” begins on stage, when Cooper’s character, Jackson Maine, takes a handful of pills and a swig of gin to make it through a packed arena concert. Brandishing a stylish green guitar with scowling swagger, Jackson furiously tears through one of his signature rootsy, hard-driving hits. Filming the sequence in urgent close-ups, Cooper plunges audiences into the deafening world of stardom at its most engulfing peak, made all the more numbing by the cushioned silence of the limo that picks Jackson up after the show.
Desperate for one more drink, the rock star stops in at a little nightclub, where a waitress named Ally delivers a sensationally torchy version of “La Vie en Rose” in the midst of sundry drag routines. He’s smitten, and who wouldn’t be after the most adorable meet-cute of the year, during which a spirited Greek chorus of trans women comment lustily from the sidelines?
Viewers familiar with previous versions of “A Star is Born” – whose narrative structure goes almost as far back as the medium itself – will already be bracing themselves for what’s to come. But Cooper allows the audience to revel in Jackson and Ally’s flirtations and courtship, which comes into florid bloom along with the tingly excitement of proximate fame, naked desire and unstoppable creativity.
Part of the fun of “A Star is Born” is watching Ally, who lives with her star-struck dad (Andrew Dice Clay), pretend to be immune to the seductions Jackson has to offer, which are sexual but also aspirational. When she finally succumbs, the audience does, too. And when he brings her on stage for her big breakout, and Gaga lets loose with those pipes, the moment is electrifying.
Of course, nothing gold can stay. As Jackson and Ally’s fates intersect, collide and finally, fatally diverge, “A Star is Born” lives up to the operatic tragedy hinted at by the arias that often play in the background. Cooper handles those tonal shifts with confidence as well, as sweaty immediacy becomes something more intimate and soul-baring.
As an actress, Gaga may not yet possess the range she has as a singer, but with the help of editor Jay Cassidy, the film is shaped to make the most of her gifts. There are sequences in “A Star is Born” when it feels like a showdown between the best eyes in the business. It’s when she sings that she comes radiantly into her own, claiming the screen as totally as Ally claims the spotlight when her turn comes.
In a sly turn, Cooper seems to be doing his best Sam Elliott impersonation until the real Sam Elliott shows up, and it’s clear he’s delivering a performance within a performance, for reasons that become clear in a cleverly choreographed reveal. There are a few awkward transitions and slightly choppy patches in “A Star is Born,” but Cooper keeps the story on the rails, even when his characters are going off them.
And it’s not just Jackson who slips: As Ally becomes more successful, she stars to resemble a parody of a pop tartlet: one part Britney, one part Katy and no part real.
As a study in artifice and authenticity, “A Star is Born” offers a suitably jaundiced glimpse of star-making machinery at its most cynical, but also its most thrilling and gratifying. In many ways it’s a paean to the recognition of talent, at its purest and most wild.
And it’s a reminder that self-preservation is crucial to stewarding that untamed force. It’s Ally – and Gaga – who owns the spotlight, stage and screen by the end of “A Star is Born,” which Cooper has succeeded in making earthly convincing and lavishly, deliciously larger-than-life at the same time.