I worry sometimes that we’ve lost touch with the elemental pleasure of going to the movies for a good cry. Particularly now, when the world is too much with us, it can be enormously cathartic to just go into a dark room and sob for a little while. Bradley Cooper’s confidently melodramatic remake of “A Star is Born” understands this better than most pictures. It’s big, brashly old-fashioned pop entertainment with just enough tiny touches of modernity to feel fresh. This is the kind of movie everybody says they don’t make anymore.
Of course they’ve already made it a whole bunch of times before, starting with George Cukor’s “What Price Hollywood” in 1932, which was reconfigured five years later into a “A Star is Born” by director William Wellman. For my money the definitive edition remains Cukor’s 1954 re-take starring Judy Garland and James Mason, but I’ll cop to an irrational soft spot for the (largely terrible) 1976 rock musical headlined by an afro’ed Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson during an era when he was apparently allergic to shirts.
Plot-wise Cooper’s redux hews most closely to the Streisand version, though film buffs can lose an afternoon listing all the homages and asides he’s thrown in referencing the story’s previous incarnations. The first-time director stars here as Jackson Maine, a superstar country rocker in shambles, self-medicating his tinnitus with whiskey and pills. One night after a gig he drunkenly staggers into a drag bar where he and we both are instantly smitten by the lady with electrical tape eyebrows singing “La Vie En Rose.”
This is Ally, played by Stefani Germanotta — Lady Gaga to the rest of us — in a revelatory performance that one would call star-making were she not already one of the most famous people on the planet. Unlike the usual mousy ingenues in this oft-told tale, Ally’s a tough broad who’s been around the block a few times. (On her first date with Jackson she punches a cop.) Gaga is a captivating screen presence, coarsened yet vulnerable, with a singing voice that blows open doors to other universes.
The swooningly romantic first hour or so of “A Star is Born” is about as good as mainstream movies get. There’s an air of casual enchantment to their courtship, with Matthew Libatique’s shimmering cinematography conveying that first flush of infatuation where the nights seem to stretch out with endless possibility. Cooper brings a tenderness to Jackson’s stuporous overtures, somehow charming even when he’s passing out on the couch before she can get him into bed.
It’s all very nicely layered and lived-in. There are a couple of lovely supporting performances by Sam Elliott as Jackson’s long-suffering older brother and Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s doting, limo-driver dad. (I love that he and his chauffeur buddies all hang out and gamble on Japanese horse races when they finish work at six in the morning, one of the movie’s many little bits of texture that add shading to the obvious archetypes.)
We all know where this is going, as according to Hollywood legend her success must eclipse his and further inflame Jackson’s demons to tragic ends. It’s a bullet-proof formula for a four-hankie tear-jerker and credit goes to Cooper for not shying away from the melodrama while staying just an inch or two on the right side of tacky. You could hardly call this movie restrained, but it’s not hysterical either — a delicate balancing act, particularly for a first-time filmmaker.
My one big complaint is the characterization of Ally’s manager, played a bit too fiendishly by Rafi Gavron. When the record company tries to package her as a dance music pop tart, the screenplay succumbs to the hoary old chestnut that somehow Ally is more “authentic” when she’s going acoustic. (We call this the fallacy of “MTV Unplugged.”) It is of course quite possible to make electronic dance music and keep your artistic integrity intact, and one need look no further than to the career of the woman starring in this film.
Luckily Cooper doesn’t spend too much time bogged down in that particular subplot and pulls out all the stops for his big finish. (I was a wreck.) There’s a reason this story has been told so many times — because it works. One could quibble that this version is perhaps too beholden to the films that have come before — besides the drag bar it doesn’t add much in the way of daring or originality — but then you don’t go see a cover band to hear something new. Elliott gets a monologue talking about how all songs are basically the same twelve bars, but the movie needn’t be so defensive. “A Star is Born” is an American standard, beautifully sung.