The simplest thing to say about “A Star Is Born” is that it’s all right. Not all right as in OK with a shrug, but thrillingly, almost miraculously right in all respects. The venerable formula has finally found its not-so-manifest destiny after three earlier iterations—four, if you count “What Price Hollywood?,” the 1932 drama that established the dynamics of the plot. This time the lovers—one soaring up toward fulfillment and fame, the other hurtling down from celebrity toward incipient calamity—are played to dramatic and musical perfection by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. (Mr. Cooper directed, in a phenomenal feature debut.) It’s as if none concerned knew they were shooting a remake. The film feels fresh from thunderous start to exquisite finish.
In a sense that comes as no surprise. Anticipation of something special started building in June with the release of the trailer, one of the most effective pieces of movie marketing in memory. Trailers are only promissory notes; this one might have been another instance of bedazzlement destined to disappoint. In retrospect, though, it was a 2 1/2-minute distillation of what sustains the movie’s soul—yes, a mainstream Hollywood production with a rich soul—over the course of 2 1/4 hours: dazzle and flash aplenty, but also fondness, generosity, quietude, passionate love and, before and after everything else, music.
That’s the new film’s secret sauce. Music didn’t figure at all in the 1937 “A Star Is Born,” with Janet Gaynor starring opposite Fredric March, who plays the alcoholic leading man Norman Maine. But in the 1954 version, where Maine was played by James Mason, the heart of Judy Garland’s startling performance was song. And in the 1976 version Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson both played musicians, just as Gaga and Mr. Cooper do—she as Ally, a singer-songwriter reluctant to sing her own songs, and he as Jackson Maine (a hat-tip to Norman), a rock star with a gift for tender ballads and boozy self-destruction. The difference this time is an intricate musical collaboration that confers complex feelings on the schematic plot. Garland’s was a solo act; the Streisand and Kristofferson characters were essentially parallel acts with music in common. For Ally and Jackson, good music—and the movie is filled with it—means more than a career. It’s the gravity that brings them together, the force that binds them with an intimacy, urgency and specificity that hasn’t been seen on the feature screen for more than a decade since the musicians in a little film called “Once” worked out their first duet in a transport of enchantment.
Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine and Lady Gaga as Ally Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures
“A Star Is Born” isn’t little. This film is big, wide and deep, not just by virtue of its production values (Matthew Libatique did the splendid cinematography), but of the emotional resonance of the screenplay (written by Eric Roth, Mr. Cooper and Will Fetters) and the spellbinding power of the performances.
Lady Gaga’s virtuosity may not constitute breaking news; what’s remarkable is her dramatic range. At the start, when Ally is tender and thwarted, singing standards in a drag bar where she recently worked as a server, Gaga’s approach to the part isn’t self-effacing, since no self seems in need of effacement; actor and character are indivisible, then and throughout. Ally and Jackson meet accidentally after one of his concerts—the first of many conventions honored once again—but accident paves the way for inspiration in a supermarket parking lot at night. The two of them fool around musically for a while, then she lets loose with a song of show-stopping gorgeousness, except that there’s no show, only the incandescent conjunction of two kindred spirits. (All of the songs in the film were performed live; the effect is electrifying.)
Mr. Cooper, Lady Gaga and Sam Elliott as Bobby Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures
Mr. Cooper has been brilliant before—in David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle,” in Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” and, of course, in Tod Phillips’s “The Hangover,” the 2009 comedy that put him on the map. Still, none of that has prepared us for the fullness of what he does here—and does under his own unselfish direction. Previous versions of his character were obviously doomed by booze and drugs. Jackson is doomed, too, but far less obviously. He’s in love with Ally, heart and soul—jealousy has wisely been removed from the conventional equation—and strives to help her, though he can’t help himself. Much more than a collection of addictions, he sings in a beautifully deep baritone (partly the result, we are told, of Mr. Cooper’s intensive vocal training); has a hearing impairment that’s accelerating his decline (which, inevitably, is less interesting than the narrative’s rising notes); and betrays a poignant melancholy that can turn, in a shocking instant, to volcanic vitriol.
The supporting cast is brilliant as well. Sam Elliott is Bobby, Jackson’s brother and fractious manager; they share the subterranean register of their voices and the anguish of their childhood. Dave Chappelle is Noodles, Jackson’s old friend and unsparing truth-teller; Andrew Dice Clay is Lorenzo, Ally’s father, who puts her down subtly while adoring her. Anthony Ramos is Ramon, Ally’s good-hearted friend. Rafi Gavron is Rez, her ruthless manager. The film’s only banal note comes when Rez presents himself after she makes a sensational appearance on stage with Jackson. It isn’t the actor’s fault; the manager is the movie’s Iago, the familiar but indispensable instrument of the music business, which tries its best to turn her gift into a commodity.
Lady Gaga and Andrew Dice Clay as Lorenzo Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures
The best-known line from earlier versions of “A Star Is Born” is the heroine’s “This is Mrs. Norman Maine.” But the most haunting line is what the hero says near the end: “I just want to take another look at you.” In this version there’s a sense that the filmmakers wanted to take another look at the basic material to see what remained to be revealed. That’s the director’s strategy in shot after shot, scene after scene, and the film’s distinctive vitality lies in what he finds: occasions for silence that speak more eloquently than words; how she watches him in ardent wonderment; how he glances at her in unguarded moments; how he loves seeing her face displayed on a giant billboard on Sunset Boulevard; how he romps with his dog, Charlie; how his face looks—really looks beneath the camera’s steady gaze—as he’s about to do what he does at the end. From a multitude of discoveries, small and large, a marvelous movie is born.