A Star is Born is a simple idea that just won’t die. This version, directed by and starring Bradley Cooper as rock star Jackson Maine, is the fourth retelling of the starstruck fantasy. Famous boy meets girl in bar, makes her a star, they fall in love, get married and she cares for his tortured soul until death.
While previous incarnations starring Janet Gaynor (1937) and Judy Garland (1954) imply that the woman’s success somehow emasculates or kills off the man, this one takes its cue from the Barbra Streisand version (1976) in which the two seem to be opposite sides of the same coin, one representing creative chaos, the other hard graft.
Lady Gaga steps into Streisand’s stilettos as Ally and actually does a better job. Her pipes are just as powerful, but she has none of Streisand’s self-aggrandising swagger. When Maine first drags her up on stage, she covers her face, then clutches onto the mic stand for dear life and, in an instant, all memories of meat dresses vanish. If it wasn’t for that gargantuan voice, you wouldn’t recognise her with her lank locks and barely-there make-up. She deserves any awards that come her way.
Cooper does a solid job, too, perhaps more so on the direction than the acting. He brings sweat and tinnitus into the music scenes, lending them a visceral edge, and he has Ally come up through the drag scene – as Gaga did – to give her oddness an authentic origin story. As Ally recalls the time a music executive told her to fix her nose if she wanted a record deal, you feel Gaga’s lived experience is sitting just below the surface.
Cooper, on the other hand, is living out his wildest rock star dreams. His performance is a tad adolescent at times – the tiresomely croaky voice he puts on for a start – and his musical turns, while not spectacular, are assured enough that he isn’t a cause for anxiety every time he approaches a guitar. He hits a high point in the third act when he discovers his character’s vulnerability.
Even though it borders on two and a half hours, the pacing is perfect. There’s something immensely satisfying about watching Ally tick off one career milestone after the other, like a music biz simulation game rolling towards completion.
If you’re new to this myth, take tissues because the ending is dark. Lady Gaga, however, shines like a supernova.