“It’s the same story, told over and over. All any artist can offer this world is how they see those 12 notes. That’s it.”– Bobby Maine (played by Sam Elliott) in “A Star Is Born.”
Every once in a great while you experience a movie moment so beautiful and so exhilarating it truly does take your breath away and maybe even brings a tear to your eye.
In Bradley Cooper’s electric and shatteringly powerful “A Star Is Born,” such a moment occurs relatively early.
Cooper’s world-famous and world-weary country-rock star Jackson Maine is playing to thousands of adoring fans. Standing in the wings is Lady Gaga’s Ally, an unknown singer/songwriter who has recently captivated Jackson on multiple levels. She is just here to watch.
To Ally’s surprise, Jackson begins to perform one of Ally’s songs. He beckons Ally to join him. Ally takes a deep breath, walks out there and begins to sing.
As her voice soars to the heavens and back, just like that:
A star is born.
Fine, that sounds sentimental and a little corny and very Hollywood — but one of the many wonderful surprises in “A Star is Born” is how director/co-writer/leading man Cooper strikes the perfect balance between a showbiz fable with emotional histrionics and performance numbers and a finely honed, intimate story with universal truths and experiences hardly unique to the entertainment world.
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We’ve all known someone who (like Jackson Maine) has been blessed with talent and success but continues to be his own worst enemy and might be beyond redemption. We’ve all known someone who (like Ally) dreams big and has something to say — but wonders if anyone will ever truly listen to her.
This is the fourth “A Star is Born,” following the non-musical original from 1937; the 1954 film with Judy Garland and James Mason, and the 1976 hit starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. On paper (or I guess we should say online), this seems like a safe, mainstream vehicle for Cooper’s directorial debut — but given Cooper has never performed music and Lady Gaga has never headlined a movie, and if either or both failed miserably we’d be talking Razzies instead of Oscars, there’s actually something bold and brave about tackling this material.
They pulled it off and then some.
Lady Gaga is a winning, natural presence, even in the scenes where she’s nowhere near a piano or a microphone. Cooper’s guitar and growling baritone vocal work is so solid, if someone played you a Jackson Maine song and you didn’t know it was actually the actor Bradley Cooper, it’s quite possible you’d believe it was the work of a real veteran music star.
It all begins, as it almost has to begin, with Jackson meeting Ally by chance.
In search of a late-night bar, Jackson stumbles into a drag club just in time to see Lady Gaga’s Ally belt out an intoxicating, show-stopping take on “La Vie En Rose.” (The featured performers at the cabaret love Ally so much, they’re happy to cede a little stage time whenever she stops by.)
Jackson is instantly enchanted and intrigued on a number of levels. Ally can’t believe THE Jackson Maine was out there in the audience, just sitting at the bar, when she performed.
Now Jackson wants to know if Ally would like to hang out. Um, yeah she would.
But the touching manner in which the night plays out is an early indication we’re in for something special, even as it takes us through the expected bittersweet stages of the Jackson-Ally romance, with Jackson spiraling deeper and deeper into an addiction-fueled tunnel while Ally’s career soars.
Cooper consistently finds unique ways to advance the story, e.g., instead of the obligatory ascent-to-stardom montage replete with shots of Ally’s adoring fans mobbing her for autographs and selfies, and the jam-packed press conferences, etc., etc., we know Ally has become a breakthrough star when she’s the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live.” (The scene was filmed on the real “SNL” stage, with Alec Baldwin playing … Alec Baldwin, that week’s host.)
And Cooper and Gaga performed their numbers live at real venues, including the Glastonbury Festival, with the cameras staying with the artists. No cheesy cutaways to adoring fans hoisting signs freshly created by the props folks.
The outstanding supporting cast includes Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s loving and supportive father, a limo driver convinced he was a better singer than Sinatra; Dave Chappelle as Jackson’s best friend, Noodles, whose family helps provide the most blissful chapter in the tumultuous Jackson/Ally romance, and the great Sam Elliott as Jackson’s much older big brother Bobby, who has been Jackson’s manager, babysitter and PR fire extinguisher for far too long.
This is the best “A Star Is Born” yet, and one of the best movies of the year.
‘A Star Is Born’
Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Bradley Cooper and written by Cooper, Eric Roth and Will Fetters. Rated R (for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse). Running time: 136 minutes. Opens Thursday at local theaters.