Yes, we’ve seen it before, but the Lady Gaga/Bradley Cooper reboot of A Star Is Born is strangely fresh.
I’m not a fan of remakes or reboots. There’s a world of ideas out there, so why go on and make A Star Is Born for the fourth time? Well, it kinda makes sense, in one way. There’s slim to zero chance that any member of either the new film’s target demo or the army of Lady Gaga’s fan base of “little monsters” would have seen the Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland, or Barbra Streisand versions. And if you’re going to try to find a film vehicle for a pop singer who wants to cross over, the tale here (famous person finds someone with unconventional looks and untapped talent, and then proceeds to tap the talent only to see the fame eclipse his own) is one which suits aforementioned Gaga to a tee.
It’s surprisingly good. For a host of reasons. For one, Bradley Cooper shows some genuine depth as the alcoholic rock star who finds Lady Gaga’s waitress and pushes her into the spotlight. His vocal register as a singer is impressive and his line deliveries see him speak a couple of octaves lower than usual; he adopts a Midwest drawl which suggests multiple years, if not decades, of gargling with whisky and chasing it with gravel.
The songs all stand out as the kind of songs that would in fact hit with audiences. A lot of the time, your Inside Baseball-type of showbiz backstage dramas feature either performers who aren’t that good as actors, songs that wouldn’t be hits, writers who can’t write, or any combination of the above. These songs are toe tappers, conceived out of a real emotional wellspring and put together with the intent of being songs in their own right, rather than being The Songs that go into The Film “Here” and “Here”; nor are we made to imagine that this duo wrote something like “Hey Jude” in a parallel pop universe. We have, bar a segue of “Oh, Pretty Woman,” a small cadre of original pieces which would be hits outside this context.
Cooper’s direction is solid and quite original. He keeps his camera in tight closeups through much of the performances; it’s both Cooper and Gaga doing the singing, live to camera most of the time. The scripting is credited to a handful of writers, but the surprising element of the dialogue is that several key moments seem to be improvised, and they work brilliantly. There’s a naturalism to the performances and scenarios that seems neither forced nor contrived. It’s a great cast and it’s wonderful to see the likes of Andrew Dice Clay and Sam Elliot in substantial, sympathetic supporting roles.
A Star Is Born is really, and I’m shocked to be saying this, surprisingly good. And the fact is that a part like this, in a story like this, is—for someone with Lady Gaga’s obvious talent and façade—a perfect and dazzling fit. I’ve never been a fan of her music, I found much of her act gimmicky, mostly glitter and bubbles covering up unmemorable pop off-cuts (undoubtedly not aimed at me). But she’s clearly got a world-class set of pipes on her and, in this film, she’s just astonishing. She’s got the voice, the moxie, and she can act. Lord-a-mercy, she can act. It’s one of those performances which harnesses her obvious singing ability and uses it as a vehicle for emotional expression—much of the time I was made to think of Jennifer Hudson’s debut in Dreamgirls; you watch her sing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” and think, “Kids, that’s how you win an Oscar.” Same thing here. Cooper stages the finale with Gaga center stage in a manner that skews from overt sentiment, but doesn’t rob the moment of its emotional heft. Gaga carries it with stunning command and tangible emotion.
I’ll be surprised if this isn’t up for innumerable awards next year. In a cinematic climate devoid of musicals and believable romance, this one’s a keeper.