To hear Bradley Cooper’s crooner in “A Star Is Born” tell it, music is the same story being told over and over again — just 12 notes between each octave, all of them eventually repeating. The magic lies in how they’re expressed. That’s a fitting note to hit in the fourth iteration of a story that’s proven more enduring than most songs written when the first “Star” was born 81 years ago, and it’s key to appreciating Cooper’s arrangement as more than just a cover.
You don’t see “A Star Is Born” to actually watch a star being born, at least not anymore. Maybe you did in 1937, when William Wellman first brought the story to screen; or 17 years later, when Judy Garland led the best (and best-known) version of this enduring Hollywood fable; or even in 1976, when Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson tried to prove the third time’s the charm. But not now, when both Cooper and Lady Gaga have been shining bright for a full decade.
So why watch “A Star Is Born” in 2018, when Cooper’s directorial debut is premiering in Venice as part of a world tour that’s clearly meant to crescendo on a certain stage in Hollywood next year? The answer, it turns out, is Gaga. Already a Golden Globe winner for her work on “American Horror Story,” the pop star is resplendent as a diamond-in-the-rough singer whose booming voice and subtle expressions would make her predecessors proud. Credit to Cooper for delivering his best, most soulful performance while pulling double duty behind the camera, but it’s his co-star whose magnetism most draws you into their world — and keeps you there even when the film hits the occasional wrong note.
In part that’s because she instantly makes you believe in her Ally as a no-name talent despite already being one of the most successful singers on the planet. Unassuming but obviously special, she speaks at length about how showbiz power brokers like her voice but not her looks; given the extravagance of the pop star’s usual costumes, it’s almost like you’re seeing her for the first time. Even with everything Gaga’s already done, “A Star Is Born” feels like a coming-out party for her. Cooper is a co-lead but, in much the same way that his Jackson Maine takes Ally on tour and facilitates her burgeoning superstardom, it often feels like his onscreen goal is to play second fiddle and help us see that, as both an actress and a singer, his co-star is a singular talent.
At times this is the most immersive concert film this side of the late, great Jonathan Demme, the camera just feet from Jackson as he downs a handful of pills with a swig of vodka before picking up his guitar and launching into his set. His own star has begun to fade somewhat — though Jackson’s twangy, country-inflected rock ballads still draw crowds — but he isn’t the only one in this constellation. Their duets are even better, feeling far less staged than filmed performances tend to, with Cooper’s raw approach offering what feels like a behind-the-scenes look at two actual musicians falling in love onstage.
A fall-down drunk who manages to stay standing on his better nights, Jackson self-medicates not only for the typical sad-musician reasons but also to distract from the ringing in his ears that’s never going away and will only get worse as time goes on. The meet-cute comes when he stumbles into a bar for a post-concert drink and sees Ally deliver a stirring rendition of “La Vie en rose” that would make even Marion Cotillard blush, and it isn’t just the booze talking when he tells her she’s beautiful — the man is clearly smitten, and it’s nearly impossible not to share his admiration. Their immediate, highly sensual chemistry proves to be the film’s most compelling element, as well as its most combustible; you don’t have to sing Édith Piaf songs to know there’s nothing like amour fou.
Cooper, whose “American Sniper” became the most financially successful film of 2014 on the back of quote-unquote Real America, manages to appeal to that same set while also setting a key scene in a bar celebrating drag night. More than just a cover artist, he brings a sense of experiential urgency to the proceedings that makes them feel new again (even if it’s difficult to overlook the irony of Jackson’s most popular tune beiginning with the line “Maybe it’s time the let the old ways die…” in this, the fourth version of a very old story).
But these better tendencies give way to a more familiar tale of alcoholism, recovery, and the perils of overnight stardom. It’s here that Cooper is hobbled by the source material, as though he feels obligated to hit the same narrative beats (and, in broad strokes, he’s largely telling the same story) as his predecessors and isn’t as adept at riffing on them. The film itself feels like a kind of duet, and suffers when the two aren’t sharing the screen. “Star” is less compelling as it expands its focus beyond their central relationship and toward its overarching ideas, some of which can’t help but feel like the plot contrivances they are — not least because most aren’t given the time they need to fully breathe, even with a runtime of two hours and 15 minutes.
Of those, the first 40 are by far the most immersive. Covering a whirlwind 24 hours during which the two lovers meet, fall in love, and perform onstage together for the first time, they make for a soaring, borderline transcendent first act that will stay stuck in your head after the credits roll.
“A Star Is Born” world premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Warner Bros. will release it in theaters on October 5.