The musical screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and now we believe the hype.
"It's the same story told over and over," Sam Elliott growls -- in that way only Sam Elliott can -- in A Star Is Born. In the context of the film, he is explaining how all songs comprise the same 12 notes between any octave: "Only thing the artist can offer the world is how they see those twelve notes."
There's a similar notion in cinema -- that there are only seven stories in the world to be told -- and so the line works as a fitting bit of meta-ness to describe A Star Is Born, a remake of the 1976 musical starring Barbra Streisand, which was a remake of the 1954 version starring Judy Garland, itself a remake of the 1937 original. The story, that of a self-destructive musician who finds and falls for the gifted ingénue, has been told before, but never the way Bradley Cooper sees it.
In Cooper's directorial debut, he stars as hard-drinking country-rock legend Jackson Maine, who stumbles into a drag bar one night after a gig and hears Ally (played by Lady Gaga), a cater waiter moonlighting as a cabaret singer, belting out "La Vie en Rose." Jackson is instantly taken with her talent -- and with her -- and invites her to his concert, where he prods a reluctant Ally to perform one of her songs. Then, as the story goes, she becomes his protégé and they become lovers, and as her star is on the rise, he spirals into booze and despair.
Cooper is leather-faced and gravel-voiced as Jackson, playing the rocker with a cockiness that comes from years of fan worship, without ever being aggressively so. His Jackson is charismatic and, with Ally, encouraging, not patronizing (at least not at first). Perhaps more impressive than his performance here -- which is a damn impressive performance, the best I've ever seen from the actor, especially as the film goes on -- is Cooper's direction.
He has created a film that is completely free of cynicism, that embraces its romanticism and earnestness without coming across as pandering or oozing schmaltz, never feeling dated or hokey or like a rehash of the Stars birthed before it. Instead, Cooper finds a naturalness in the proceedings, particularly in the lived-in performances he draws forth from his cast, from Elliott, understatedly excellent as always as Jackson's older brother, to Anthony Ramos (Hamilton) and Dave Chappelle as the friends who knew them when, to RuPaul's Drag Race alums Willam Belli and D.J. "Shangela" Pierce. And then there's Gaga.
Gaga has acting credits to her name -- and a Golden Globe for her high-camp turn on American Horror Story -- but this effectively serves as her debut, and I found myself immediately smitten with her the moment she appeared onscreen. As an actress, Gaga has a lightness to herself, an ease with which she can shift from brassiness to vulnerability. I'm not sure you can ever truly forget it's Lady Gaga up there, but maybe more impressive is how she channels that oversized public persona into a human-size role.
I believed her Ally, and appreciated how Cooper (with Eric Roth and Will Fetters) wrote her and how Gaga portrayed her. There's something of a minefield to walk into with this premise -- that every woman is one man thinking she's pretty away from success -- but Ally knows her worth in both their romantic relationship and her music. She never doubts her talent; it's just she's been told no for so long that it seems unattainable. And the music -- her music -- is outstanding, each piece, especially the howl of a theme song, "The Shallow," perfectly placed within the movie. Of course, Gaga sounds incredible, too. (There's some more fun meta-ness to be had in that Ally's career is basically Gaga's in reverse, starting at Joanne and moving into dance pop.)
Separately, each actor is great, but Cooper and Gaga shine brightest sharing the screen together, a palpable chemistry blossoming between the two in scenes full of rambling dialogue and stolen glances. So much of the electricity of the movie is in watching them watch each other, looking first with curiosity, then amusement, lust, infatuation, respect, jealousy, resentment, concern, disdain, desperation (all captured in intimate close-ups by cinematographer Matthew Libatique). It's in their eyes. Which is truly the most literal definition of in a story told over and over, the only thing the artist can offer is how they see it.