Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Bradley Cooper
Stars: Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Anthony Ramos, Sam Elliott, Rafi Gavron, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle, Ron Rifkin, Barry Shabaka Henley, Alec Baldwin, Greg Grunberg, Drena De Niro, Lukas Nelson.
This is the fourth version of the classic story that was first filmed in 1937 with Frederick March and Janet Gaynor in the lead roles. It was notably remade in 1954 as a musical with James Mason and Judy Garland in the lead roles. It is forty years since we saw Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in their version of A Star Is Born, which transferred the story from Hollywood to the rock music scene. And yet this remake from debutante director Bradley Cooper (better known for his acting work) manages to inject something fresh and exciting into the familiar story.
This was something of a passion project for Cooper, and it shows through in every detail. The screenplay, from Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Horse Whisperer, etc) and Will Fetters (The Best Of Me, etc) draws heavily on the template from William Wellman’s screenplay for the 1937 version. The screenplay avoids unnecessarily saccharine melodrama yet is still extremely involving and ultimately moving.
Cooper himself also takes on the role of Jackson Maine, a self-destructive veteran country singer who has grown increasingly addicted to booze and drugs. One night following a gig he ends up in a drag bar where he sees a performance by Ally (Lady Gaga),a waitress hoping to break into the music business, and her rendition of a torch song captures his attention. The pair connect instantly. Jackson invites her to his next concert and encourages her to join him on stage to sing. At first Ally seems reluctant to share the limelight, but Jackson helps her on the path to fame and fortune. Ally soon lands a contract with record company executive Rez Gavron (Rafi Gavron), and soon her career takes off. But as her star rises, Jackson’s career begins to stall, which puts pressure on their relationship.
Cooper and Gaga share a genuine and combustible chemistry here that also elevates the material. Gaga delivers a revealing performance here, especially as some of her early scenes capture her without the usual makeup and stage accoutrements. Her character undergoes the most dramatic character arc here and she is convincing throughout some dramatic moments. Cooper finds a vulnerability in his performance, and this is one of his best performances. Although better known for his lighter comedic roles in films like The Hangover series Cooper has delivered some fine dramatic performances in films like Silver Linings Playbook and Clint Eastwood’s gritty Iraq war drama American Sniper.
And it’s good to see veteran Sam Elliott (Up In The Air, etc) back on screen in a substantial role. He brings his usual gruff persona to his role as Jackson’s older half-brother and manager Booby. Anthony Ramos (Patti Cake$, etc) also registers strongly as Ramon, Ally’s gay friend, while comedian Andrew Dice Clay (The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, etc) pops up in a serious dramatic role as Ally’s father Lorenzo, who works as a driver for a limo service.
A Star Is Born has been beautifully shot by Matthew Libatique (a frequent collaborator of Darren Aronofsky), who works in closeup, which gives the film an intimacy. The music for the film was recorded live, with both Cooper and Gaga performing live at numerous gigs during breaks while bands were setting up, which gives these scenes an authenticity and realism. Most of the original songs for the film were written by Lukas Nelson, the son of country singer Willie Nelson, who also worked with Cooper, teaching him how to play the guitar and convincing portray a rock star.
A Star Is Born is an enduring, timeless tale of love, fame and the whole damn thing. But this latest version has been garnering rave reviews, and there is a lot of early Oscar buzz surrounding the production. And most of the early hype is justified.