Run time: 2 hours 17 minutes
Stars: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay
Director: Bradley Cooper
The first hour of Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born — previous versions were in 1937, 1954 and 1976 — is the best movie of the year. Plus, you get to find out what Lady Gaga really looks like. Cooper directs, writes, composes songs and plays the rock-star addict lead role (Jackson Maine) better than Kris Kristofferson did in the ’76 Barbra Streisand version — because instead of actually being plastered on-screen, he’s playing a drunk with nuance. He conveys not simply the illness, but also the backstory that drives it: childhood trauma from an addict dad, a tough relationship with his longtime manager-partner-older brother (Sam Elliott, 74), and the tinnitus that torments so many singers of our generation (Pete Townshend, Bob Dylan, Ozzy Osborne, Streisand).
And while Streisand and Kristofferson feuded offscreen and failed to bond musically, Cooper’s low-down Americana growl (stolen, as Elliott’s character complains, from him) blends beautifully with Gaga’s polymorphous pop genius. She can act, and he can sing. You’re right there in her heart when Jackson randomly stumbles into a tiny drag-queen bar for his postmidnight drinks; witnesses Ally, a hotel waitress, performing a dazzling “La Vie en Rose”; gets wowed by her new tune, “Shallow”; flies her to his concert on his jet; starts singing the hit he heard her croon once in a parking lot after the drag show; and invites her onstage to join him on the chorus: “I’m off the deep end. Watch as I dive in.”
We’re not watching. We’re diving in with her — and ascending to an insta-stardom that feels real, not contrived. She’s a movie star now.
Previous versions get lost and sprawling after the star’s birth onstage, and so does this one, a bit. But not too badly, because it’s anchored in a sensational supporting cast of grownups. Elliott is marvelous as the big brother eclipsed by Jackson, just as Jackson is by Ally. And as the wise elder, he explains the fresh theme of Cooper’s version of the hoary rise-and-fall show biz story — it’s a defense of authenticity over flash-in-the-pan gimmickry. “Music is essentially 12 notes,” he says. “The same story told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer this world is how they see those 12 notes. That’s it.”
Ally’s ingenue is equally emotionally anchored: with Alonzo (Andrew Dice Clay, 61), the father she lives with, and the guys who work for his chauffeur company. Clay is a better actor than I ever imagined he could grow up to be, pained and thrilled by Ally’s rise because he’s a thwarted singer who says Mel Torme once told him he was as good as Sinatra. Michael Harney, 62 (who got two Screen Actors Guild Awards as a kindly guard on Orange Is the New Black) is quietly eloquent as a friend who’s heard this before and loves Alonzo anyhow.
After three Oscar nominations, Cooper knows how to work with actors, and his close-ups deliver the goods with galvanic spontaneity. The songs by Cooper, Gaga, Mark Ronson (who wrote “Uptown Funk"), Dave Cobb, Willie Nelson’s son Lukas Nelson and DJ White Shadow (Gaga's “Born This Way") are solid. And instead of the standard montage to indicate Ally’s rising star, Cooper uses actual performances shot before huge crowds at the Coachella and Glastonbury festivals (with Kristofferson, better than ever at 82, sharing the stage). I thought I detected real stage fright when Cooper made his singing debut with Gaga before 80,000 actual fans, and palpable exhilaration as the crowd actually went wild. Despite a second act that can’t quite live up narratively to the immense promise of the first, A Star Is Born is the real thing.