When Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine, a country headliner who’s “faded as his jeans,” and Lady Gaga’s working-class Ally (a fed-up waitress and fledgling singer-songwriter who moonlights in a drag bar) suddenly ignite in concert for the first time, the newly created song they perform, “Shallow,” is so lucid and expressive (the alcoholic Jackson sings, poignantly, “in the bad times I fear myself”), that it, well, downright takes your breath away. Summoned to a stadium stage on a dare, at first startled, then ready to roll, Ally whisks through a battery of emotions: wariness, disbelief, then all-out surrender to the winning song she’s penned. At one point she covers her eyes, like a frightened child, as she croons; later, emboldened, she spreads her arms wide to mimic the diving imagery in her lyrics. When Ally aces the initial high note of her segue, wowing the audience, Jackson whirls around with an ecstatic grin on his face (he’s just proven to the cheering crowd, and to the world at large, the brilliance of his new lady love and musical discovery). There’s such heady richness and oomph in Ally’s belting as she vocalizes between stanzas, it’s like gusts of healing wind.
Because Jack and Ally’s duet has rare intimacy and real-deal fireworks, the audience (both on-screen and off) is rightly convinced we’re witnessing the birth of a star. We tend to forget, as moviegoers, that it’s not always a plot point or a rippling line of dialogue that we take away from a movie, often it’s an actor’s thrilling, bull’s-eye gesture: for instance, Liza Minnelli beckoning with emerald-green nails at the close of Bob Fosse’s Cabaret—a gesture so riveting and right that it becomes iconic, unforgettable. Lady Gaga does just this kind of revelatory singing in character. In fact, you’d have to reach back to swift-moving Minnelli in her Oscar-winning performance as the gold-digging nightclub singer Sally Bowles, Bette Midler in The Rose, or Barbra Streisand as wiseacre Fanny Brice in Funny Girl to find an actress-singer who can “sell a song” in the intuitive and heartbreaking way that Gaga does in this latest version of A Star is Born.
As a first-time TV queen in the stylish, intensely derivative American Horror Story: Hotel, Gaga didn’t quite have the gravitas of a Catherine Deneuve or a Tilda Swinton to pull off her centuries-old vampiress role. What Gaga did have, though, as the bloodthirsty Countess, was a go-for-broke sensual daring and a killer wardrobe that suggested a white Grace Jones. Here, as down-to-earth Ally, who is clear-eyed about Jack’s perpetual battle with the bottle, she fully anchors the movie, and the wonder is that a straightforward Lady Gaga, free of artifice, is as fascinating as the shape-shifting, surreal pop goddess in her blockbuster songs “Telephone” (with Beyoncé) and “Bad Romance.”
Nor is Cooper himself a celebrity-for-hire singer, like Pierce Brosnan croaking “SOS” in Mama Mia! or Ryan Gosling idling through La La Land. It’s easy to grasp why Jack is a beloved star because the grit and truth inherent in Bradley Cooper’s singing is arresting; as an actor working in front of live audiences, Cooper reaches down deep into himself to bring up the matter-of-fact loneliness and clear-as-a-bell yearning that is the “achy-breaky heart” of country music. When Jackson sings, in a whiskey-rich register reminiscent of Kris Kristofferson (his counterpart in the previous version of A Star is Born), he has charisma in spades; he’s a self-destructive winner, like hypnotic Jim Morrison or hell-bent Amy Winehouse, and our fascination with Jackson’s very public downfall, his ramble down the road to ruin, as meteoric Ally rises, is a form of movie rubbernecking.
After the couple’s exhilarating duet goes viral, Ally is wooed and groomed for stardom by a wheeler-dealer manager who envisions kudos and dollars in her musical future. At his urging, Ally becomes a lustrous redhead, with backup singers, and begins climbing the charts. Ally’s Svengali, Rez, is the smooth Euro snake at the core of Jack and Ally’s Garden of Eden—he represents cool, princely music-industry seduction, and with rapidly ascending Ally, he’s hit the jackpot. In one of the story’s most tried-and-true set pieces, a sloshed Jackson interrupts Ally’s Grammy Award acceptance, and it’s such an all-out debacle (even more abysmal than Kanye West’s notorious awards ambush of Taylor Swift) that when a sobered Jack apologizes, it is one of Cooper’s keenest moments in the film.
Cooper the director surrounds this megawatt couple with friends and family who are attentive but never indulgent; their tangible love for Jack and Ally allows us to love the characters, too. Inspired by the real-life Gaga, a LGBTQIA diva, the script brings playful, saucy elements of the drag world into the film with offhand precision and affection.
Despite its length, this dynamic fourth remake of A Star is Born (the most famous being the 1954 version featuring Oscar-robbed Judy Garland) is a fast-lane movie that evokes the star-making machinery that rushes and hurls aspiring singers along like floodwater. The Cracker Jack surprise is how emotionally potent Cooper’s up-to-date version is, leaving us deeply satisfied and sufficiently walloped by the spectacle of a doomed showbiz couple we come to care for and root for. Like the electric, indelible Garland, Cooper and Gaga pour their distinctive passion and talent into this time-tested “he falls while she rises” formula, turning old-fashioned melodrama into truth and movie magic.
Cyrus Cassells, a poet and professor of English at Texas State University, lives in Austin.