There is, at the heart of A Star Is Born, a truly great film. There’s a reason why this story keeps getting remade — it was first filmed in 1937 with Janet Gaynor in the lead, that film itself based, loosely, on an earlier film called What Price Hollywood; 1954 and 1976 versions starred Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand — and this generation’s iteration is a fine addition to the sequence.
The story is quite well known, of course — an older star, at the height of his career arc, meets a younger counterpart on her way up, and his stature falls as hers ascends to the heights he vacates. This latest version casts Bradley Cooper, who also directs and who co-wrote the screenplay, as Jackson Maine, and Lady Gaga as Ally. Jack, as those close to him call him, needs a drink so badly after a show that he has his driver drop him at the first bar he sees on his way to his hotel; the bar turns out to be a drag bar which, rather pleasingly inclusively, features Ally singing alongside the drag queens. Jack takes her out for a drink afterwards, he finds out she’s a singer, he invites her to one of his shows, he pulls her onto the stage to sing with him, and she so wows Rez, a music manager, that he sets her up with a recording contract. From here, the standard ASIB progression follows, with her star rising just as his falls.
So the story is quite obvious, even if you’re not familiar with the earlier versions, and so once the destination is clear, what matters is the journey, and this leaves the two leads to do the heavy lifting, and this is where Gaga excels. She’s an established singer, so it’s no surprise that when Maine all but bullies her into singing her song Shallows on stage with him, she performs with a passion and a ferocious raw energy that profoundly impress. But even though this is her first film role, she also acts with a maturity and richness that impress as surely and as assuredly as her singing. Cooper is a little less outstanding; while he sings very well, and does a very good job of looking like he’s actually playing the Gibson ES-335 he wears for the concert scenes, his Maine mumbles and rumbles his lines in a voice so gravelly that there were moments — especially in scenes with Maine’s brother Bobby (Sam Elliott, sporting a moustache so heroic a walrus would be proud to wear it) — where dialogue was incomprehensible.
So with talent like Gaga and Cooper, does it work? The answer is a qualified yes. There are set-piece moments that genuinely move and affect — the first time she sings on stage with him is a powerful moment, Gaga’s voice matched only by what seems like honest, sincere and profound joy on her face as she realises that, yes, she really can do this, or the the moment when Maine reaches, very publicly and with great humiliation, his alcohol-and-drug-driven nadir, or the last time Ally sings on stage, that will have you reaching for your tissues. There is Ally’s career arc, which Jack warns her about, in a rare moment of cruelty in what is otherwise a very loving, very sweet relationship, which in some ways mirrors Gaga’s own — just as conventional bar singer Stephani Germanotta only found fame when she put on costumes Elton John would reject as being a little much and became Lady Gaga, Ally finds that in order to become a star in her own right, shining out of Jack’s shadow, she has to become something different from the singer she apparently wanted to be. And there is, as we’ve mentioned, the central relationship. I wondered, as I left the cinema, why Ally tolerated Jackson’s debilitating addiction to gin and whatever pills he could put his hand to; Debbie, Crave!’s intrepid guest reviewer, pointed out that theirs was a basically loving relationship, and she was right — with one gin-driven exception, he is never cruel to her, he is never violent, or abusive, but honestly seems to care for her, and that, then is enough for her to forgive a monstrously public humiliation that could have been played for laughs, or milked for pathos, but is delivered with enough sensitivity that you’ll properly feel for both Ally and Jackson.
But it’s not a perfect film. There’s a lot to like — about an hour and a half’s worth, to be exact. But the film lasts for about two and a quarter. It’s long, it’s baggy and it’s paced much too slowly. While Cooper the director clearly wants to show the development of his characters’ relationship, he does it a bit too ponderously than would be ideal. And his dialogue is, well, flat. This was never going to be a comedy laugh-fest, but its dialogue is surprisingly lacking in spark, in zip, in edge. It’s not bad, not at all, but it doesn’t do anything terribly interesting either.
Every generation gets its own A Star Is Born. Cooper’s fine; Lady Gaga makes this generation’s version into something definitely worth watching.