* * * * 1/2
A star is born. I’ll say she is! The second time Lady Gaga sings in Bradley Cooper’s new take on the classic material is the moment her character, Ally, crosses over from amateur to professional, while Lady Gaga herself becomes a movie star (and, I am betting now, Academy Award Winner) and Bradley Cooper becomes a serious movie director (this is his debut). A whole lot of stars are being born, and it is something to see.
Gaga does everything possible with the moment. Ally is a mess of contradictions, an ocean of emotions, and it’s all there, in close-up, with a crowd, a band, a bustle of backstage action, and Lady Gaga does it, backwards and in heels. I teared up. You do, when you’re seeing a star being born.
Gaga is wonderful throughout this wonderful film. So is Cooper. This is a love story that is completely believable, featuring the kind of chemistry that makes it appear impossible the two leads weren’t actually falling head over heels in love. It is a believable story of an alcoholic life, of the elastic boundaries of enablement and justification; and it is a powerful story of art and the artist. While there are naturally occurring thematic ripples about fame and celebrity, those twin demons are not the headlines here. Cooper gives us an old-fashioned “big” movie (which deserves a big screen with a superior sound system) but a small story, one that sticks close to a small set of characters and their very real, relatable issues. This is not a Star is Born about the perils of fame; this is about the perils of booze and the challenges of love.
Cooper directs the hell out of the movie. He pays beautiful moments of homage to previous versions (wait until you see the title card); he plugs in multitudinous Easter eggs, references and in-jokes that never derail your engagement; and, as a co-scriptwriter, he brilliantly updates the gender terrain: this is not a Svengali story this time around, and Ally has plenty of agency. She makes many choices; one just happens to be to love a troubled man.
Cooper also, with his co-screenwriters and his editor, makes suburb use of dramatic ellipses. So much of this movie happens off-screen, and always to the dramatic benefit. Cooper trusts us to fill in narrative blanks and emotional ones, so we only need to watch one version of the big argument, one version of the big humiliation, and so on. Likewise, each individual scene is pared to the bone, getting in late and getting out early: the screenwriter’s holy grail.
The casting is also superb. Who knew Andrew Dice Clay had this performance in him (as Ally’s Dad, whose crew of limo-driver cronies could spin off into their own TV series)? Or Dave Chappelle? The biggest impact of all the supporting players, though, is made by Sam Elliot as Cooper’s brother. This rangy, dependable, cowboy of an actor has been memorable in 99 roles, according to IMDB: a fine moment to get an Oscar.
Am I gushing? So I should. This is a movie to gush over, to see again, to buy the soundtrack to, to urge others to see, to dream about. It’s classic material, but not all the versions have been classic. This one is. There are absolutely ways you could find fault with aspects of the film; you could pick apart elements of the plot, or have problems with the specificity of its music and how it relates to the modern market. Or, you could do as I did, which was to fall deeply for its charms, and let yourself get swept away. As another critic noted, “The way to like this film is to love it.” I love it.
Watch it sweep the Oscars, too. I’ll be fine with that.