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With: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, Andrew Dice Clay, Anthony Ramos, Bonnie Somerville, Michael Harney, Rafi Gavron
Written by: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters, based on a story by William A. Wellman, Robert Carson, and on screenplays by Moss Hart, and John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion, Frank Pierson
Directed by: Bradley Cooper
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse
Running Time: 135
Date: 10/05/2018

A Star Is Born (2018)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Born' This Way

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

If nothing else, the fourth version of A Star Is Born shows that Bradley Cooper knows his way around the back of a camera, and that Lady Gaga is a natural-born star. Otherwise, it's not a particularly great or profound movie, but it's a hugely enjoyable one, with so many amazing scenes that it hardly matters whether they add up to anything.

I have only seen the second of the first three versions, George Cukor's 1954 film. The first one, released in 1937, written by Alan Campbell, Robert Carson, and the one and only Dorothy Parker, and directed by William Wellman, was a Hollywood story, with Janet Gaynor wanting to become a movie star, and Fredric March as a drunk, established movie star. Cukor turned that into a musical in 1954, giving Judy Garland a chance to both act and sing, and with James Mason in the male role. Frank Pierson's 1976 version transported the story from the movie biz to the music biz, with fading rock star Kris Kristofferson giving a shot to up-and-comer Barbra Streisand. Cooper's version seems to be closest to this last one.

All the films are long, and the story is heavy and bleary; it leaves you feeling wrung out. The beauty of Cooper's achievement is that he smoothes it, focuses on moments of hope and joy, rather than lingering on anguish and pain. For one thing, Cooper's character, rock star Jackson Maine — who performs Pearl Jam-like roaring grunge — doesn't have to suffer a decline in his career. This one isn't simply about watching one star rise and another star fall. Jackson opens the story by performing a cool song at an enormous concert, and he's got the stuff. Cooper's camera remains on stage looking out, like a stagehand that can see the intimate details of the performance, rather than an audience member that sees only flash and starlight.

But we also see Jackson swallowing pills and booze before the show, and though he still plays on point, he's pretty messed up. When his bottle goes empty in his limo, his driver takes him to a nearby bar, a drag bar, where the lip-syncing queens allow one woman, Ally (Lady Gaga), to sing a real song. She does "La vie en rose," and, as Jackson is gobsmacked by her voice and her entire presence, so are we. He asks her to take off her exaggerated makeup, and we see her, at last, and she's beautiful. It's a moment that ties nicely into her real-life persona.

Her "star is born" moment is equally potent. In a private moment, Jackson gets her to sing him a portion of a song she's written, and he secretly does an arrangement of it for another live show. He romantically whisks her away from her day job — along with her best friend (Anthony Ramos, from Broadway's Hamilton and Spike Lee's Netflix series She's Gotta Have It) — in a private jet and limo and then plunked backstage. He then coaxes her onstage, and the shocked, overwhelmed girl sings her heart out, her voice intertwining with Jackson's, in front of thousands. How can you not love that?

The rest of the story goes as expected, with Ally's career going stratospheric and Jackson's drinking getting out of control. At a low point, he gets wasted during a Roy Orbison tribute show — he's asked not to sing, but only to stand in the back and play the "(Oh) Pretty Woman" riff — then hightails it to the Grammy awards, where Ally has won Best New Artist. He wobbles on-stage with her and, to put it mildly, causes a bit of a scandal.

Ally's douchey manager (Rafi Gavron), who wears dinky little girl socks, provides several turning points here, both by turning her into a packaged, commercial product (with backup dancers), and by doing everything in his power to get rid of Jackson's volatile presence. But the catch is that Jackson and Ally really do love each other, and their scenes together are tender and real; even their knock-down, drag-out fights have an honest chemistry. A visitation session at rehab moves into close-ups of the two, cutting out all the other activity in the room. When the visit ends and the shot widens, we're shocked to learn that other people were also in the room, privy to their intensely personal chat.

Cooper does a miraculous job of making the music industry seem absolutely real, rather than just a researcher's interpretation of what it might/must be like, and inevitably making it feel fake. Concerts feel real, backstage feels real, the Grammys feel real, and Saturday Night Live feels real. (Alec Baldwin appears in a little cameo to say, "Ladies and gentlemen... Ally.").

The SNL performance of a purposely insipid song brings up a question. The movie's assertion that music comes from honesty and finding one's own personal truth may clash with some moviegoers' visions of Lady Gaga as a purely artificial performer, hiding behind makeup and costumes and slick production. She's hardly the unplugged, au-natural kind of performer that the movie seems to champion. But on the other hand, it could be argued that the pop star Lady Gaga did make it on her own terms.

In his role, Cooper tries and pulls off something risky. He cast Sam Elliott in the role of Bobby, Jackson's older half-brother and current manager, and he attempts to speak in the same low, drawling man-purr that made Elliott famous. It's a way of showing that, not only are they related, but that the younger man idolizes the older one. It's a small, lovely glimpse inside Jackson's character. The two men share an absolutely remarkable scene, driving through the country, with the camera planted unblinkingly in the back seat, and the characters just talking, in real time. When Bobby drops Jackson at a country house and backs away, and it's a moment of magic.

However, Cooper does allow Gaga to steal the show. His character has less of an arc than do his three predecessors. Jackson never lets vanity or jealousy get in the way of his relationship with Ally. He shows disappointment in some of her choices, but he's always encouraging. He has her best interests at heart. (There could have been pressure to do it this way, to control Gaga's all-important movie debut as much as possible, but I'll leave that to future biographers.)

Either way, Cooper still comes out looking great. This is his directorial debut, and he seems to have put more planning into each shot, each scene, than many more experienced directors do entire movies. He not only plays a character with a different voice inflection and accent, but he also learned how to play guitar and sing well enough not just to get by, but to feel like an honest-to-goodness rock star. Any great artist would be happy to take on all these tasks in order to make a great movie, but to viewers and Oscar-voters, Cooper's achievement will look like a miracle.

In the final outcome, the movie's individual scenes pack more of a punch than the movie's overall flow — they're like great music videos in a clip show — but Cooper has an unquestionably strong eye, and I look forward to more films by him. And if the marvelous miss Lady Gaga wanted to enter a new phase of her career in which she stripped off her makeup and sang from her heart, I'd like to see more of that, too.

Warner Home Video's Blu-ray release (with bonus DVD and digital copy) is best enjoyed for the way its superior sound highlight's the movie's music. Bonuses include a 30-minute making-of featurette, three fun "Jam Sessions" and rarities, four Lady Gaga music videos — for "Shallow," "Always Remember Us This Way," "Look What I Found," and "I'll Never Love Again" — and all the film's musical numbers assembled in a row. There are also various trailers at startup.

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