It’s one of the oldest tales in Hollywood: one star falls as another rises against the backdrop of a tragic love story. Without ever having seen one of the four versions of A Star Is Born, you probably already know the gist: An alcoholic male artist discovers a talented ingénue, they fall in love, and she soars to stardom as his life and career spirals out of control. Even though we know exactly where this relationship is headed, Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born makes that classic tale remarkably fresh.

Cooper’s musical melodrama (and directorial debut) makes nods to all three previous iterations of A Star Is Born but it most closely resembles the 1976 Barbra Streisand remake. That film took the previous versions, all set in Hollywood, and transported them to the music industry; Cooper uses that concept to critique the modern day pop-star-making machine and the toxicity of fame. But his version is also an unabashedly sentimental romance, a surprisingly thoughtful examination of addiction, and an excellent showcase for Cooper’s skills behind the camera and Lady Gaga’s in front of it. While her previous film and TV roles emphasized the larger-than-life eccentricities of Stefani Germanotta’s stage persona, here she gives a fantastic performance of astonishing ease, one where she conveys as much emotion with a simple cock of the eyebrow as she does belting on a stage.

Cooper casts himself as Jackson Maine, a country star struggling with addiction and tinnitus, while Gaga is Ally, a waitress by day and singer-songwriter who performs cabaret shows by night. We meet Jackson as he bookends a stadium performance with pills and booze. After the show he walks into the nearest bar where Ally is about to take the stage. Bathed in glowing red light, she grips the attention of the entire bar as she croons a cover of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose.” It’s just one of many magical moments in the film’s entrancing first hour, a sequence that immediately introduces Ally a force you can’t tear your eyes from.

One of my biggest issues with the previous A Star Is Borns is their unconvincing romances, which often came off forced and rushed. But here Cooper and Gaga share a warm, intimate chemistry. Their late-night jaunt across town captures that head rush of falling in with someone you just met, the kind of ordinary-but-spectacular night that you never want to end when you meet someone you’re immediately drawn to. They laugh in the florescent-lit aisles of a supermarket over a bag of frozen peas and sit in a vacant parking lot where Ally sings the lyrics to what’ll become her first hit – and the film’s best song, “Shallow.” Those are the sparks that build to the explosive fireworks moment of a new relationship; in most romances that moment is usually the first kiss, but here it’s an impromptu duet.

Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures
Warner Bros

It happens the first time Jackson pulls Ally up on stage. She’s never sung in a room bigger than a cramped bar, and especially not her own lyrics, but after a couple moments of hesitation, she grabs the microphone and belts out the song like a seasoned pro. It’s a spellbinding sequence; I promise that no matter how many times you’ve heard that Gaga riff teased in the trailer, the scene will still leave you with chills.

That’s when A Star Is Born peaks, and the rest of film never quite matches to the exhilarating energy of Ally and Jackson’s first performance. But perhaps that’s the point: that song is like the climax of a new relationship, the head-spinning bliss when you fall hard and fast for someone that you can never recreate or get back to, as hard as you try. That doesn’t mean the remainder of A Star Is Born isn’t good, it’s just suffused with more pain and heartbreak as we watch our two leads torn in different directions.

As Ally begins her ascent, going from a YouTube sensation – “Look at the views!” her father (Andrew Dice Clay), proudly boasts of the viral video of her debut performance – to mega-pop star playing Saturday Night Live, Jackson’s reputation plummets. He snorts lines of cocaine and brushes the remainder into a glass of whiskey; he’s too drunk to have sex; he’s late to gigs; he get’s in nasty fight with his brother/manager Bobby (a fantastic Sam Elliott).

Warner Bros.

As much as that sounds like the clichéd trajectory of addiction narratives, Cooper brings layers of compassion to his troubled musician. While the previous versions of A Star Is Born merely depicted that character’s alcoholism as a one-dimensional tragic flaw, Cooper’s remake spends more time exploring the depths of his addiction, the roots of his severe depression, and most notably, the tumultuous effects that can have on a relationship. What struck me most is how the film poignantly captures the experience of loving a partner so completely through their addiction, and of desperately wanting to save them from their suffering when you know you can’t.

While A Star Is Born isn’t a perfect movie, faltering in its second act and rushing far too quickly into Ally’s rise to fame, it’s an undeniably mesmerizing one. It’s gorgeously shot by Darren Aronofsky’s frequent cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Black Swan, mother!), and an impressive directorial debut from Cooper, proving that he knows where to place a camera and how to employ close-ups for maximum emotional effect. Plus, the soundtrack will lodge itself in your brain for days. (I still can’t stop singing “Shallow.”)

I walked into the film wondering whether or not we needed another A Star Is Born, but once I left, having an answer to that question didn’t necessarily matter. Cooper’s film proves that a love story this timeless still works when done right.


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