How over-the-moon you are about A Star Is Born depends on how gaga you are about Lady Gaga. The likely winner of the next Best Actress Oscar isn’t at all bad. She acquits herself. We can believe Gaga as a nobody, whose Ally is told by music executives that her nose is too big, stalemating her career. Despite her interestingly complicated mouth and large hazel eyes, it’s easy enough to believe she has been dismissed as, Her voice is a 10 but her looks are a 3.
Novice director and co-star Bradley Cooper takes a low-key attack on this thrice-filmed melodrama’s material (the original Star dates to 1937). As the self-destructive roots-rocker Jackson Maine, Cooper is generous with his own closeups. He gets decadent fast—crunches pills with his bootheel and drinks whiskey out of the bottle. After a stint in Malibu rehab, he leaps up from the swimming pool water, reborn, showing off a torso worthy of a Renaissance statue.
Cooper tries, with some success, to rejuvenate the material, about a rising star who falls in love with an older legend. She surpasses him, even as he’s pulled down by his substance abuse.
A Star Is Born begins in blackout with the ambient roar and whooping of a rock show. The camera is almost always on stage with Jackson and Ally, giving us their view. Yet this tale of superstars takes place in a bubble without much entourage.
Honoré de Balzac said that you could tell you were famous when the grocer embraces you, and here a grocery store cashier stops to take a picture of Jackson. We get a better idea of the level of Jackson’s fame than his identity as a musician—his would-be showstopper is a Townes Van Zandt–style song “The Shallows,” accompanied by Ally, whom he pushes in front of a microphone at a giant outdoor concert. (Real talents never need to rehearse.)
We also have a better idea of who Jackson was rather than what he is now. Sam Elliott plays Jackson’s angry off-again, on-again manager (and half-brother), and provides the decadent storyline of their shared past.
The relatively low budget (under $40 million) must excuse the lack of background, both in the unseen faces of the fans and the confusing geography. No matter who she’s playing, it’s hard to imagine Lady Gaga as anything but a New Yorker. This East Coast style is reinforced by her slightly shady outer-borough father (Andrew Dice Clay), who works in the livery business with black-suit-clad buddies who fall somewhere between the mobsters in GoodFellas and the Seven Dwarfs.
We’re also seemingly in New York in the first meeting of Jackson and Ally at an East Side drag bar where Cooper stops by chance for a way-home round. There, he’s dazzled by Ally posing as a drag queen, covering Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.” After the show, Ally warbles a cappella in a supermarket parking lot, and Jackson instantly realizes that she’s a major talent.
The love scenes with their half-spoken lines work better than anything in the film. The words between the lovers seem fresh and unscripted. Gaga and Cooper are attractive opposites, short and tall, gruff and femmy; the scenes of his return from rehab are very touching and tentative.
But the music doesn’t stick with you, and as director, Cooper doesn’t seem to have any opinion about whether the evolution of Ally’s sound is good or bad. As Ally gets big enough for Sunset Boulevard billboards, she becomes more artificial, more covered with cosmetics, more built for the giga-stage of the L.A. Forum. She is molded by a sinister British record company exec named Rez (Rafi Gavron). As in every musical melodrama, this is the one person in the world who can make or break a singer.
Ally puts up a fight for Jackson—she’s true blue to the end. Cooper credibly shows the humiliations of a hard drinker. But the same problem the film critic Pauline Kael identified in the 1976 version is back: a star who disturbs the faux solemnity of an awards show with a boozed-up scene would end up beloved by nihilists everywhere, not shunned by all. The latest take on A Star Is Born is like movie night at the rehab clinic: all the shame of drunkenness and none of the elation.
‘A Star Is Born’ opens Friday, Oct. 5, at several select theaters in the North Bay.