Movie review: ‘A Star is Born’ is full of surprises, from Lady Gaga’s acting to Bradley Cooper’s singing

October 4, 2018

He’s a desperate man, a rock star drinking and drugging himself into a stupor, with family and health issues and no one in his life to right his ship.

And then he met her.

She’s a talent with a beautiful voice, a gift for writing songs that she’s too afraid to share and a complex about her appearance that she’s decided will always hold her back.

And then she met him.

The first hour of “A Star is Born” is something very special.

If all you knew about Lady Gaga was her music or her many stage personas, you may be surprised by her acting, by how down-to-earth she can make her character and by how willing she is to bare her soul.

If all you knew about Bradley Cooper was his good looks and amiable reputation as an actor you can’t dislike, you will be surprised by his singing voice, by his display of raw emotions and by his debut as a director.

The second hour of “A Star is Born” shows that his strength is in staging musical moments that make this movie take off early but also a few story missteps and a need for tighter editing.

This is entertaining, vibrant, flawed filmmaking.

Despite the reaction to the picture at recent awards-season primer film festivals — crowds were ready to give the movie all of the Oscars — this movie should be an audience favorite more than anything.

I can see the public embracing this in a way similar to “The Bodyguard,” another music-filled melodrama smash that wasn’t even a good movie. This is a far better film.

It’s the fourth time for “A Star is Born” (the 1937 original, the Judy Garland version of 1954, the funky Barbra Streisand hit from 1976), and Gaga provides a couple of neat nods to this past.

Look for her character leaving work singing lyrics from “Over the Rainbow” (Garland) and her insecurities about her looks, especially her nose (Streisand).

It’s difficult to think of who could have played the role of Ally as well, considering the singing demands. And yet, as the story’s young up-and-comer who falls for a rocker on the downside of his own fame, the role doesn’t feel like it’s that much of a stretch for Gaga.

It’s a version of herself, in essence, and she plays it beautifully.

On the other hand, Cooper is a revelation as Jackson Maine, a hard-drinking rock singer-songwriter, sort of an Eric Clapton-meets-Waylon Jennings throwback growling out songs for adoring arena fans.

He’s still “playing the hits” for them as a functional drunk, far more successfully than Jeff Bridges’ “Crazy Heart” character, but this performance echoes that Oscar winner.

And as a director, Cooper knows how to stage a meet-cute moment, with Jackson ending up inside a drag bar where Ally is the only woman allowed to sing.

On this first-night encounter through another bar, a fight and a grocery trip, Cooper knows how he wants the camera to linger on their shared first-stare, their first-touch of hands, their intimate and unsaid moments that scream, “You two lost souls need each other.”

Once he learns of her songwriting and gets her on stage to duet with him, the result is “Shallow,” a bring-the-house-down number full of soaring emotions that may take home a best-song Academy Award like “Evergreen” did in Streisand’s version.

What that performance wins Ally in the film is viral fame via YouTube video shares, which begins a whirlwind of her growing closer to Jackson on his tour before she’s inevitably approached: Ally, you have what it takes to be the star.

While that first hour is all about building up this romance and their collaboration, and her therapeutic presence on Jackson, the second half is largely about tearing it down.

Their relationship says some interesting things about loving someone with the disease of addiction, the search for fame vs. fighting to be recognized and staying authentic vs. keeping up an image.

But the progress of their relationship feels stuck in “What are we doing?” mode forever, and her solo success comes so easily that it feels ridiculous.

And two subplots are weakly developed — Jackson’s relationship with a family member (Sam Elliott) and his Tinnitus ear-ringing — until a dramatic ending that hammers home why both were established more than two hours earlier.

“A Star is Born” isn’t a perfect movie, but it is a darned entertaining one.

Go for Gaga, stay for Cooper, and enjoy the soundtrack of their characters’ lives.

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