Lady Gaga is a natural.
“There is no new thing under the sun.” That well-worn adage from Ecclesiastes is repurposed late into A Star is Born. A character, heartbroken and wizened, ruminates on the nature of songwriting. “Music is essentially twelve notes between any octave,” he says.
At best, an expertly rendered tune evolves into a standard. At worst, it becomes a commercial jingle. “All the artist can offer the world is how they see those twelve notes.” This bit of wisdom not only describes the difficulty of creating an original work. It also underlines a widespread obsession with remakes, sequels and reboots. “It’s the same story, told over and over.”
And over again. Bradley Cooper clearly appreciates irony. His directorial debut is a tale as old as classical cinema. If you count 1932’s What Price Hollywood?, this is the fifth iteration of a story that probably seemed familiar from the start. In all instances, a famous man meets a regular woman. He’s a drunk. She’s a talented nobody. He offers her a big break. She accepts the opportunity and ascends. He resents her burgeoning stardom and sinks further into addiction. They wed at some point. She becomes an icon. He implodes in a moment of public humiliation. Their story ends in heartbreak. Rinse and repeat.
Cooper’s A Star is Born only seems formulaic from a distance. In a darkened theater, this is a love story between two individuals stuck, like magnets, between the laws of physics and sexual desire. The seeming, natural attraction between Cooper and Lady Gaga is powerful. Their chemistry fuels a runaway train, one that barrels toward inevitable catastrophe.
As a director, Cooper keeps his shots tight and kinetic, often from below. There’s a puppy-like enthusiasm to his approach, which can be infectious. A wet tongue never enters the frame, maybe because it’s implied. Halos of light regularly encircle his protagonists. Is this how my pooch sees me at the front door?
His performance as Jackson Maine, in front of the camera, is a different story altogether. He’s detached and gruff, a twangy singer-songwriter on the wane. Cooper lowers his voice to a growl that’s sometimes imperceptible. But his eyes beam. Unlike his counterpart – James Mason, in the 1954 version of this story – he’s rarely an asshole. In fact, he’s only nasty once, and his cruelty is forgivable.
He mostly stands in awe of Ally, the star in question. So do we. Lady Gaga is a natural. This should come as no surprise if you’ve been following her career. Born and bred on Sondheim and rock music, Gaga is finally living the dream. She may be an international pop sensation, but Stefani Germanotta, the quintessential theater nerd, now stands in contrast to the twin giants of Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. That she’s better than both in this role is remarkable, at least in theory. In practice, it’s proof that Lady Gaga is woefully underappreciated. This is a knockout performance. If you’re shocked, check your premises.
There’s a dreamlike quality to Cooper’s adaptation of A Star is Born. Rational thought has to be put aside. How does Jackson learn Ally’s signature song so quickly in a parking lot? And how does she slip right into his arrangement for her star turn? Who cares? This is a fairy tale.
“Shallow” mirrors the climax of an earlier version of this story, which ended in a drowning. Fame is something like a cosmic draw. A star dies. Another is born. Rinse. Repeat.