No, the contours of the new “A Star Is Born,” starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, don’t veer too far from the 1937 original with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. Or the 1954 version with Judy Garland and James Mason. Or the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.
It doesn’t take long in Cooper’s soulful directorial debut to realize how little that matters. After all, most movie adaptations of “Romeo & Juliet” tell the same story, and what’s important is the care given to the characters within it.
In Cooper’s version (he shares writing credit with Eric Roth and Will Fetters), those characters are Jackson Maine, an alcoholic country-rock singer, and Ally, a hotel waiter who moonlights as a singer at a drag bar. It’s when Maine, out of booze and looking for a drink, enters that bar and hears Ally singing a sultry take on “La Vie en Rose,” that a connection sparks.
Jackson and Ally spend the night together, driving around in Jackson’s town car and talking about music and songwriting. He gets her to sing a song she wrote. She talks about how she’s uncomfortable singing her own songs onstage, and that talent experts have told her she’ll never be famous because her nose is too big. In the early morning, he takes her home, where she lives with her dad, Lorenzo (Andrew Dice Clay), who runs a chauffeur service and talks about his days as a crooner.
The next day, Jackson invites Ally, and tagalong pal Ramon (Anthony Ramos), to take a private plane to his next gig in Phoenix. In the wings during Jackson’s performance, Ally is shocked when he starts playing the song she wrote, and urging her to sing with him. She does, and it becomes a viral sensation.
What Ally doesn’t see at first is the tension in Jackson’s rock-star life, much of it fueled by alcohol. There are his arguments with his road manager, and older brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott). And there is Jackson’s tinnitus, a condition he refuses to treat, making his hearing only get worse. In spite of the warning signs, Ally falls in love with Jackson. But as she becomes a fast-rising star and Jackson declines into alcoholism and drug dependency, will their live survive?
Cooper shows, both as director and in his hangdog performance, that he’s not just the pretty face of “The Hangover.”His Jackson Maine looks and feels like a washed-up music legend, from his guitar riffs to his choice of friends — namely, a sage old cohort in Memphis played by Dave Chappelle. Cooper also synthesizes the alcoholism tropes of the past “A Star Is Born” iterations and a thousand other movies and gives them a bone-deep authenticity.
But, unlike Jackson, Cooper knows when to turn the spotlight over to his leading lady. Given the theatricality of her musical persona, it’s no surprise that Lady Gaga makes an impression in the film. What is surprising, and revelatory, is how the woman born Stefani Germanotta channels both the Gaga glamour and the earthy, real human being behind it. The glory of this version of “A Star Is Born” is in how this movie star is born through the deconstruction of the pop star playing her.
‘A Star Is Born’
Opens Friday, Oct. 5, at theaters everywhere. Rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse. Running time: 136 minutes.