Lady Gaga is a revelation in the rebooted fame tragedy, infusing the material with soulfulness and vulnerability.
Calling the new A Star Is Born a “valentine” from its star, Lady Gaga, to her fans sounds a bit coy and delicate, so let’s call it what it really is: a hot French kiss (with full-on tongue), filled with passion, tears and a staggering amount of chutzpah. Generously emotional and all the more fun for it, the movie functions as something akin to a Marvel-esque origin story, with Gaga’s own mythology—vamping it up at drag cabarets, etc.—subbing in for her character’s background. It's more than smart to have cast her; it's essential to the movie even working.
But to watch her character, Ally, become a star—especially onstage during the film’s live moments, which feel frightening, massive and deafening—is an incredible piece of evolution. Gaga is really acting here: shy, somehow smaller, trembling with excitement. Incrementally, she blooms in the spotlight, proudly waving around that Streisand schnozz, the big voice completing the transformation. She’s extraordinary, and you root for her to go supernova per the scenario’s time-honored trajectory.
Director-co-star Bradley Cooper has something else in mind, though. Just as his own performance—as Jackson Maine, this film’s rocker on the downslide—ends up being one of those grumbly beard chews (if you remember the 1976 version, you might describe it as "Kristoffersonian"), his steering of the drama is understated: modest and unshowy. He’s trying to make a “real” version of this glitziest of stories (whatever that means), and you love that Cooper seems to have learned more from his unassuming American Sniper director Clint Eastwood than from American Hustle’s hyperactive David O. Russell.
The result is a Star Is Born that injects its interactions with plain-spoken rawness and believability. You see that not only in the skittish romance at its heart, but via concerned looks from Jackson’s father-figure road manager (a terrific Sam Elliott, booming and righteous during his showdowns) or check-ins from Ally’s limo-driving, coulda-been-a-contender dad (Andrew Dice Clay, still on the dramatic upswing post–Blue Jasmine). The movie becomes a drug-addiction story, percolating with updated musical tensions between Jackson’s Neil Young-ish canyon lifestyle and Ally’s slick pop reinvention.
On that last point, and it's more than just a quibble: Gaga and Cooper keep things so grounded and real, it’s almost a missed opportunity that Ally always seems recognizably human (hearkening back to Janet Gaynor’s heartbreaker in the 1937 original), instead of becoming the sharp-edged plastic creation we know Gaga is capable of. It’s a slight timidity that robs the movie of some of its central irony: Ally arrives at fame’s door but at what cost? Regardless, a more showbizzy actor like Judy Garland couldn’t pull off what Gaga is doing here; this is a net gain. Is there an “Evergreen,” though—a barnburner of a ballad? Perhaps: A swooping final number, “I’ll Never Love Again,” is the stuff that Oscar telecasts are made of.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf
Cast and crew
Andrew Dice Clay