The simplest thing to say about “A Star Is Born” is that it’s all right. Not all right as in OK with a shrug, but thrillingly right in just about every respect. The venerable formula has finally found its not-so- manifest destiny after three earlier versions—actually four, if you count “What Price Hollywood?,” the 1932 drama that established the dynamics of the plot, with one of the two lovers soaring up toward fulfillment and fame and the other hurtling down from celebrity toward calamity. This time they’re played to dramatic and musical perfection by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper—and Cooper directed, in a phenomenal feature debut. She’s a singer-songwriter named Ally—exceptionally gifted, but reluctant to sing her own songs. He’s Jackson Maine, a country rock star with a gift for tender ballads and boozy self-destruction. It’s as if no one knew they were shooting a remake. The film feels fresh from thunderous start to exquisite finish.
Music is the film’s secret sauce. Good music—and the movie is filled with it—means more than a career to Ally and Jackson. It’s the gravity that brings them together, the force that binds them. Lady Gaga’s virtuosity isn’t breaking news; what’s remarkable is her dramatic range in her own feature debut. Bradley Cooper has been brilliant before—in David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle,” in Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” and, of course, in Tod Phillips’s “The Hangover,” the comedy that put him on the map. What’s new is the fullness of what he does here. Previous versions of his character were obviously doomed by booze and drugs. Jackson is doomed, too, but he’s much more than a collection of addictions. He sings in a rich baritone (apparently thanks to Cooper’s intensive vocal training), and betrays a melancholy that can turn in an instant to volcanic vitriol.
The best-known line from earlier versions of “A Star Is Born” is the heroine’s “This is Mrs. Norman Maine.” But the most haunting line is what the hero says near the end: “I just want to take another look at you.” In this version there’s a sense that the filmmakers wanted to take another look at the basic material to see what remained to be revealed. That’s the director’s strategy in shot after shot, scene after scene, and the film’s distinctive vitality lies in what he finds: occasions for silence that speak more eloquently than words; how she watches him in ardent wonderment; how he glances at her in unguarded moments; how he loves seeing her face displayed on a giant billboard on Sunset Boulevard; how he romps with his dog, Charlie; how his face looks—really looks beneath the camera’s steady gaze—as he’s about to do what he does at the end. From a multitude of discoveries, small and large, a marvelous movie is born.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.