Perhaps it shouldn’t have been such a surprise, but the latest version of A Star is Born is a very enjoyable modern melodrama. Which is probably how it has always appeared, to generations of audiences, from the Janet Greer original in 1937, through the Judy Garland musical of 1954 to the Barbara Streisand permed iteration in 1976.
This time its Lady Gaga in the lead role of Ally, a working waitress who sings out her dreams in a drag club (a hint of how good she is, because she’s the only “real’ girl allowed on the stage – as for the rest of them, it’s BYOB, honey: bring your own boobs).
Her life changes in a swoop when Bradly Cooper’s alcoholic country rock star Jackson Maine drops into the drag bar one night. “I”m not sure it’s your kinda place…” protests his driver. “Does it serve drink?” asks Jackson. “Then it’s my kinda place.”
He sees her singing La Vie En Rose and her performance zings through his own post-gig fug of booze and pills. It’s a smudge unlikely, but he’s smitten and whisks her off to his hotel and then won’t leave her alone until she agrees to fly to his next gig. She quits her job and within hours she’s belting out a huge number to thousands of Jackson Maine fans. Who all love her.
That’s why I say it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Of course Gaga can handle the songs. She more that does that – she delivers each one with a terrific performance. There’s a jot of Judy and a bit of Barbara in there, but it’s all Gaga. Which is also to say that I still don’t quite know what that is – her Ally is always trying to find her one true voice, find her act, and indeed that’s the whole point of the film.
Bradley’s Jackson has that authenticity, or so it seems. Turns out even he has unresolved issues with his tour manager brother (Sam Elliot). It’s all an act, says Cooper, who meanwhile is directing and singing for the first time, all very impressively.
For all Jackson’s attempts to stop it, Ally gets sucked up into the music business, which includes having a poser of an English manager called Rez (played nicely by Rafi Gavron) and having to do silly dance routines. But she does get her billboard on Sunset and a slot on Saturday Night Live. Meanwhile, Jackson’s hearing is going, and the gritty pains in his own music are becoming too much of a reality.
It all leads up to the film’s most emotionally powerful scene – and the fact that this takes place at the Grammys speaks volumes for the potent cocktail Cooper has shaken together over the course of his film. Where Babs and Kris Kristofferson went all soft focus amid their beautifully conditioned hair, the love between Bradley and Gaga isn’t soft as an easy chair, that’s for sure.
I liked this a lot. I liked him and I kind of loved her. She doesn’t have Streisand’s self-deprecating wit or Garland’s tremulous vulnerability, but she has an unstoppable star quality that bursts through with determination tinged with something like desperation. The songs are good, and strongly sung by all – the soundtrack should be a hit. The film looks right, from the concerts (they even shot at Glastonbury) to the TV studios, the private planes, the drag club, rehab and the Grammys.
I liked the way a film with a big heart and a lot of fairy-tale romance maintained its cool throughout, even with a big old whack of an ending.
Prepare to get carried away.