The show-business myth at the center of A Star Is Born is so archetypal that each of the four filmed versions of the tale to date—five if you count the 1932 George Cukor drama What Price Hollywood?, a proto-version of the same story—is like a Talmudic gloss on a sacred text. The definitive iteration will never be filmed: The celestial body of the title will need to keep getting reborn every generation or two. (The next one, perhaps, is being literally birthed today.) A brilliant female performer moving into the spotlight just as the male star who loves her enters his eclipse: Is there a more densely packed nugget of pure tragic pleasure in all the plots of melodrama? A Star Is Born contains love, sex, celebrity, addiction, codependency, and backstage show-business dish. It’s Romeo and Juliet if, instead of stabbing herself, Juliet had gone on to EGOT.
Bradley Cooper’s astonishing new version stars Lady Gaga as an ascendant singer-songwriter and himself as the fading rock ’n’ roller who first leads her into the limelight. The astonishment comes in part from the fact that such an assured piece of filmmaking represents Cooper’s directorial debut after more than a decade of fame as an increasingly acclaimed and versatile actor. But at a more primal level, it’s Gaga who dazzles. Taking on a role best known for Judy Garland’s incandescently great performance in the 1954 version (also directed by Cukor), she proves herself worthy of those famous ruby-red slippers—or, rather, crafts herself a whole new pair of shoes from some hitherto unknown but fabulously sparkly material. Gaga never impersonates either Garland’s nervous, fluttering energy or Barbra Streisand’s neurotic charm in the unfortunate 1976 version co-starring Kris Kristofferson. But somehow her performance carries some of the DNA of theirs within it, just as the script, which Cooper co-wrote, retains whole lines of dialogue intact from earlier versions.
The 1954 A Star Is Born, with James Mason as Judy’s alcoholic beloved, is one of my desert island movies. If I were forced to write a lifelong top 10, it would no doubt make the list. (That’s despite the two-and-a-half-hour-long musical’s imperfections: It survives only in an incomplete edit, moves at an uneven pace as if to match the temperament of its moody star, and contains at least one too many bloated musical numbers in the 1950s “dream ballet” mode.) So although I’d heard the mostly rapturous advance notice on Cooper’s remake, it was hard not to go into it with a ceiling on my expectations, especially given the increased degree of difficulty of pulling off a grand-scale film musical in 2018. Gaga and Cooper blew right through that ceiling. Their collaboration may never replace Garland and Mason’s in my desert island–bound trunk, but this Star Is Born is arguably a more fully realized work than the 1954 classic. It feels somehow compact despite its sprawling two-hour-and-15-minute size, with nary a scene or frame wasted as it builds to its inexorable yet heart-shattering finale.
The first sound we hear, before the studio logos have even faded from the screen, is deafening applause. And not just figuratively deafening: The roar of a stadium crowd is augmented by a shrill drone of tinnitus, a noise we’ll hear throughout the movie to signify when we’re inside the head of Jackson Maine (Cooper), a slouching, hirsute fortysomething rocker in the mode of Neil Young or maybe a Western-tinged, slightly over-the-hill Bruce Springsteen. Jack, as he prefers to be called, is still famous enough to sell out big venues, but as is clear from the feral gulp of clear liquor he takes on his way to the mic, he’s both burned out on live performance and increasingly impaired by his addictions.
In his chauffeured car after the gig, Jack realizes he’s reached the bottom of another bottle and stops off at the nearest bar to order one for the road. That bar turns out to be hosting an amateur drag cabaret, where Jack takes in first a lip-synched performance of Etta James’ “At Last,” followed by a live cover of the Edith Piaf standard “La Vie en Rose.” That last is delivered, in sensational, room-owning style, by Ally (Gaga), a cis woman performing in her own version of drag, with electrical-tape Marlene Dietrich eyebrows and a coat of black makeup over her naturally mouse-brown hair. When not belting torch songs while stretched full-length on bars, Ally works as a server and food-prep worker in what appears to be an industrial-sized hotel kitchen. She’s long harbored aspirations to make it as a singer, but for the time being seems resigned to life in the modest house she shares with her adoring but occasionally undermining father (Andrew Dice Clay).
Ally’s co-worker and best friend Ramon (Anthony Ramos) recognizes the rock star incongruously installed at the drag bar and brings him backstage to meet the young woman who, under the tape and stage paint, displays a curious mixture of self-conscious insecurity and unshakable self-possession. The sequence that follows, as the two go out for a quiet drink that quickly comes to involve a punched cop, a trip to an all-night supermarket, and an impromptu songwriting workshop in a parking lot, was the one that hooked me. In order to invest in the creative partnership that blooms between Jack and Ally, you have to believe two things: that they genuinely find joy and fulfillment in making art, and that the art they make, whether together or separately, is good. “Shallow,” the song Ally sings in the parking lot and the one released as the soundtrack’s lead single, convinces us of both premises in one wildly catchy swoop. This song will come to occupy a crucial place in the story: In addition to being the first proof of Ally’s songwriting talent both to Jack and the viewing audience, it’s the song that makes her name when, in the movie’s first big musical set piece, she’s brought from backstage at one of Jack’s concerts to sing an unrehearsed duet that quickly goes viral.
Ally’s ascent to pop fame is as whirlwind-fast and as viscerally thrilling as her romance with the love- and booze-besotted Jack. She gets a manager, Rez (Rafi Gavron), who enrolls her in dance classes, makes over her look, and helps engineer her reinvention as a solo star performing under only her first name. (This is in contrast to the previous Star Is Borns, which made much of the management-directed changing of the central performer’s homely name to something more glamorous. In general the bottom line–focused Rez has fewer Svengali-like moments than the studio executives of earlier versions, though there’s one late scene in which the manager’s overt villainy is a bit overdrawn.) As Ally racks up Saturday Night Live appearances and Grammy nominations, Jack contends with his ebbing career—sometimes very poorly, by drinking himself into a blacked-out state—and alternately supports and resents his ever more in-demand partner. Cooper has gone through recovery in real life, and though he goes out of his way to insist that his interest in this story is not autobiographical, the portrait he draws of a self-destructive drunk is painfully raw. Ally’s enabling behavior—she minimizes the situation when Jack stumbles in public and tells small lies to protect his fragile self-esteem—is telegraphed in throwaway details, never blatantly signposted. Anyone who’s loved (or been) a problem drinker will appreciate this plotline’s freedom from the tone of maudlin glamorization that can so easily suffuse addiction narratives, especially those set in the corridors of showbiz.
From a technical point of view, A Star Is Born is richly layered with sensory pleasures, from the fluid mobility of Matthew Libatique’s handheld camera to the warm, earthy texture of the locations beautifully chosen by production designer Karen Murphy to the timeless costumes created by Erin Benach (with the input of the ever fashion-forward Gaga). At one point Ally, working on song lyrics late into the night, uses her cellphone as a light by which to see her notebook. Along with the scene in which that first “Shallow” duet goes viral on YouTube, it’s one of the few moments when digital technology makes its presence known in a movie that often has a distinctly 1970s vibe. Jack’s woody, secluded house, in particular, has a soulful quality that matches the framed album cover on Ally’s bedroom wall: Carole King’s Tapestry, a record of folky piano ballads that’s a clear influence on Ally’s early musical output. As she grows into a different kind of performer—poppier, sexier, more invested in artifice and spectacle in ways that the artist who plays her has been exploring for a decade—Jack resists the change, suggesting in one excruciating drunken speech that she’s sold out her own authenticity and talent. But it’s a point of view the movie as a whole never asks us to share. The Ally we see in extreme close-up in the final shot—anguished but resolute, looking to the future—is clearly a performer with more chameleonic self-reinventions ahead.
There isn’t a role in this movie that isn’t divinely cast, from Sam Elliott as Jack’s world-weary older brother and road manager to Dave Chappelle as a childhood friend who comes through for him when he’s hit what he foolishly still thinks is bottom. And Cooper inhabits his character more deeply than any he’s played yet, lowering his voice by an octave to a gravelly mumble and making Jack’s internal state of self-hatred and perpetual near-collapse as palpable as the joy he takes in watching Ally’s career blossom. But it’s Lady Gaga’s thrilling screen presence—bighearted yet restrained, exuberant without being showy—that elevates this familiar behind-the-scenes romance to the next level, making it a metacommentary on fame and artistic collaboration that nonetheless never distances the viewer from the simple emotional stakes of the story. It’s such a welcome sensation to walk out of a movie feeling properly walloped, reminded of the potential power of the big screen to seduce us, entertain us, and break our hearts.