At their core, the four versions of A Star Is Born — the 1937 original drama and three musical iterations — mine the same territory: An aspiring actress or singer falls under the spell professionally and romantically of an older actor or singer and her career rises meteorically as his precipitously falls.
However, the contours differ in each film, and in the latest version, Bradley Cooper, who plays world-weary singer-songwriter Jackson Maine, and Lady Gaga, as straight-shooting Ally, give us immensely sympathetic characters, whose considerable musical talents are overshadowed only by their vulnerabilities.
Likely to draw favorable comparisons to the most recent remake — 1976’s version starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson — A Star Is Born 4.0, which opens Oct. 5, is a thrilling and, ultimately, heartbreaking tale of music’s power to heal and the music business’s equally corrosive ability to destroy all but the strongest souls.
Cooper and Lady Gaga’s chemistry is off the charts. It’s a spark lit not only by their physical attraction, but by the crackling creative energy between their characters as songwriters and performers. After a ridiculously entertaining scene when Maine discovers Ally performing Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” in a noisy drag bar, his awe when Ally sings her own song a cappella for him alone in an empty parking lot is the stuff of movie gold.
In a spellbinding performance, Lady Gaga’s Ally, propelled by Maine’s belief in her, goes from beleaguered waitress initially reluctant to join him onstage for a gorgeous duet of the showstopper “Shallow” to then claiming her own spotlight during his headlining festival gig before tens of thousands. To her credit, Lady Gaga is always believable as a developing talent who loves Maine and is not using him to advance her career, but is surely going to grab the brass ring once it comes within reach.
In his confident directorial debut, Cooper is equally revelatory. Doing his own gruff singing and playing, he’s entirely credible as the slightly grizzled, charming booze- and drug-addicted troubadour whose decades of fame haven’t gone so far to his head that he doesn’t still ask his driver how his son is and listen to the answer.
In very short order, Ally goes from a singer-songwriter — complete with an album cover of Carole King’s Tapestry on her bedroom wall — to a glittery, dancing pop puppet, who sings insipid lines like “why’d you come around me with an ass like that” during her Saturday Night Live debut. The movie never makes it clear why Ally, who is otherwise resolute, doesn’t protest more vociferously the dumbing down of her music. Is it because she is so enamored with potential stardom that she is happy to dilute her sound, or is her manager (Rafi Gavron) forcing her to make the switch along with changing her hair color and fashion choices? Regardless, the film makes its not-so-subtle point that female pop artists often find themselves required to play up their sexuality in a way that male artists are seldom asked to exploit.
Unlike Kristofferson’s portrayal, Cooper’s Maine rarely seems resentful of Ally’s rise, as his substance-fueled downward spiral leads to playing soul-sucking corporate gigs and taking a cameo, instead of starring, in a Grammy tribute to Roy Orbison. The one blistering scene where he verbally attacks her both professionally and personally — and he knows exactly what to say to exact the most pain — seems more driven by real concern that she’s squandering her talent than bitterness over her success. To her credit, as her devastation from his lacerating words plays across her face, Ally gives as good as she gets. As compassionate as she is throughout the film — even when he publicly humiliates her for the last time — playing savior is not on her résumé.
Similarly differing from past versions, both Maine and Ally have their own support systems beyond the usual sycophants. Ally’s dad, played with a goofy sweetness by Andrew Dice Clay, and her best friend Ramon (Anthony Ramos) genuinely care about her well-being. For Maine, childhood friend Noodles (Dave Chappelle, in a short but pivotal scene) and older brother Bobby Maine (the always good Sam Elliott) provide solid, necessary grounding, even when the sibling rivalry and past childhood trauma between Jackson and Bobby momentarily tears them apart.
None of this would matter if the concert scenes weren’t so strong. A Star Is Born is bursting with musical goodness, chock-full of new songs written by Lady Gaga and Cooper, as well as a Murderer’s Row of contributors, including Jason Isbell, Mark Ronson, Lukas Nelson (whose group Promise of the Real serves as Maine’s backing band), Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Natalie Hemby. The ringing authenticity to their performances, filmed at Stagecoach, Coachella and Glastonbury, no doubt also comes from Lady Gaga’s insistence that she and Cooper sing live. Ally’s final stage triumph — shot at LA’s Shrine Auditorium, where Judy Garland also filmed a scene in the 1954 version — is as resonant as when Whitney Houston belted out “I Will Always Love You” at the conclusion of The Bodyguard, with an equally stunning ballad, “I’ll Never Love Again.”
If the end, which stays true to past versions, seems a little too pat, it certainly proves that the show must go on.
Though Oscar season is just beginning, it’s hard to imagine A Star Is Born not taking home some serious hardware, with possible nods for for best picture, director, actor, actress, cinematography and, of course, best original song.
(Interscope will release the A Star Is Born soundtrack on Oct. 5, the movie’s opening date.)