By Michael Phillips 2018-10-12

Chicago Tribune

3 stars

Nobody ever lost money remaking "A Star is Born," Hollywood's favorite tragic romantic fable. Whether it's any good doesn't matter. To wit: The 1976 Barbra Streisand/ Kris Kristofferson remake wasn't good, but you believed the archetypal show business lovers had musical talent. And they could act, with or against their own ridiculous material.

The new "Star is Born" with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper is more like it. The toast of the 2018 festival circuit, it arrives in theaters just in time to take a mainstream American audience's collective mind off the state of the nation. Other than some rough language, this stringently apolitical, shamelessly effective pathos machine does the job in familiar ways that work like a tear-stained charm.

The debuting feature director as well as co-writer and co-star, Cooper is very much a real director, with a genuine facility with filming musical numbers. We believe in the characters' talents, and spend time soaking them up without a lot of nervous, overcompensating editing. Between songs, he and Gaga make even the bluntest cliches about love and career and misery minty-fresh, all over again.

Cooper trained for months to lower his natural speaking voice a full octave, so that he plausibly sounds like Sam Elliott's brother. (His guardian-angel brother, a performer once upon a time, is played by, yes, Sam Elliott.) Cooper's Jackson Maine is a roots-rock singer-songwriter battling chemical demons and a restless emptiness inside.

"Maybe it's time to let the old ways die," Cooper rumbles early on, delivering Jackson's country-tinged signature tune to his fans in concert. That's terrible advice for anyone remaking "A Star is Born." The old ways work just fine.

The new version's musical material, stylistically rangy and pleasing, comes from a large group of collaborators: Mark Ronson, who oversaw Gaga's LP "Joanne," co-wrote the big power ballad "The Shallow" with Gaga and Cooper. Other songs came from Lukas Nelson, Dave Cobb and Jason Isbell, with the stars' close input. Cooper has said in interviews that he wanted to avoid turning his version of the story into a tale of petty career jealousy -- the established star giving in to a bitter, destructive envy of the newer star's rise. Smart move.

That said, Cooper makes a few missteps, and he's a bit of a hog: At times the director ever-so-slightly bigfoots his share of the screen time, ensuring that he comes out on top in terms of audience sympathy. We first meet Jackson on tour, when he thinks he has his hearing loss, alcohol intake and pill-popping relatively under control. Cooper's guitar chops are more than serviceable, and the decision to record live (no postproduction dubbing) lends an air of authenticity to a story that is, and has always been, at least 50 percent seductive fraudulence.

A waitress with that certain special something enters Jackson's wobbly orbit soon enough. Two bars into Ally's drag-bar rendition of "La Vie En Rose" and the great man is hooked. Each wide-eyed reaction shot of Cooper in close-up indicates the obvious: This woman has The Voice. Barely 15 minutes into "A Star is Born," the star is, in fact, already born, once Maine coaxes a reluctant Ally on stage at one of his concerts. It's irresistible, this scene, though my favorite moment comes in the offstage, prestardom tease, when Gaga sings a bar or two of the Judy Garland standard "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," alone. This cues the movie's title to magically appear in klieg lights, enshrining our own memories of earlier versions; it's Cooper's nod to the '54 "Star is Born," and a savvy one.

Ally's loving, devoted father (Andrew Dice Clay) believes in her talent more than she does. In deft, shorthand storytelling strokes, the script by Cooper and Eric Roth, reworking Will Fetters' earlier version, sweeps us straight into the story's inevitable river of courtship, late-night duets, marriage, excessive drinking on his end, weary anticipation of worse to come on hers.

Although set in the present day, "A Star is Born" doesn't quite make Ally a fully contemporary-seeming character. Gaga's easy, offhanded command of the screen matches up well with Cooper's sincere, straight-ahead portrayal of a decent man undermining his own talent, at times cruelly. (The scene where Jackson, in a drunken stupor, calls his wife "ugly" is properly harsh, but it also makes Ally seem like a sap for sticking with him. I guess I'm judge-y that way.) Ally gets too few chances to really speak her piece, or complicate the script's depiction of the heroine as a noble, long-suffering caretaker of a wreck.

On the other hand, it's juicy melodrama played with real feeling. Nobody goes to any version of "A Star is Born" for crushing realism, or nuance. You go for the heartfelt vocals, and the nose-to-nose verbal altercations between Gaga and Cooper, or between Cooper and Elliott.

Cooper films the concert sequences with handheld cameras, then calming his technique for more traditional, fixed-camera shots off-stage. There's more than a whiff of Clint Eastwood in Cooper's head-on visual approach. No mystery there: Eastwood nearly made his own version of "A Star is Born" with Beyonce a few years back, and he directed Cooper in Eastwood's biggest-ever hit, "American Sniper." The performers are allowed to establish a rapport together and a rapport with their respective audiences in solo turns.

Late in the game, Elliott says: "It's the same story, told over and over." His character is talking about songwriters and the finite number of notes they have at their disposal. But he may as well be speaking of "A Star is Born," the love story, fatalistic yet tasty, that keeps coming back like a song.

MPAA rating: R (for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse).

Running time: 2:15

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