At this point, it takes a lot to get critics raving over a remake (of several other remakes).
But it looks like Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, in which he stars alongside Lady Gaga, achieved the impossible. It not only made reviewers go goo-goo for Gaga, but it also seems to have reminded them that unabashedly heartfelt melodramas still have a place in the world in 2018.
The movie, which releases in theaters on Oct. 5, had an early screening for critics and audiences in attendance at Venice Film Festival. And it seems to have lived up to the hype that’s been brewing ever since the first trailer debuted.
Here’s what the critics are saying:
All hail Queen Gaga, long may she reign
Exaggeration is key—a tasteful, sensible melodrama is no melodrama at all—and you need a star who can radiate the nobility of suffering with Kabuki-level grandeur. Someone like Lady Gaga.
…But what’s surprising about Gaga is how charismatic she is without her usual extreme stage makeup, outlandish wigs and inventive costumes. It’s such a pleasure to look at her face, unadorned, with that extraordinary, face-defining nose—it’s like discovering a new country
Cooper is arguably prettier than Lady Gaga, but she is the one who commands your attention: that sharp, quizzical, leonine, mesmeric face – an uningratiating face, very different from the wide-eyed openness of Streisand or Garland. (Weirdly, she rather more resembles Marta Heflin, playing the groupie-slash-interviewer who went to bed with Kristofferson in ’76.) Her songs are gorgeous and the ingenuous openness of her scenes with Jackson are wonderfully sympathetic.
Ally, makes no mistake, has sass to spare (later that evening, when Jackson is confronted at his favorite cop bar by a man he cuckolded, she gives him a punch), but Gaga, in an ebullient and winningly direct performance, never lets her own star quality get in the way of the character. Or, rather, she lets us see that star quality is something that lives inside Ally but is still waiting to come out (the way it was in the young Streisand of “Funny Girl”).
The arc that carries the drama through humiliation, atonement, tragedy, heartbreak and a final, very public reaffirmation of Ally’s love for Jackson is pretty much indestructible, even if some dawdling in the mid-to-late action softens the emotional impact. It’s in the closing scene also that Gaga’s skill as an actor isn’t at the level of her impeccable vocals.
Living for the melodrama
You come away feeling something for these people, flawed individuals who are trying to hold their cracked pieces of self together—or to mend the cracks of those they love.
She takes off as he slowly crashes — that’s the soapy tragic “Star Is Born” concept. But what the movie does is to take this fabled melodramatic romantic seesaw and turn it into something indelibly heartfelt and revealing.
Cooper directs and co-stars in this outrageously watchable and colossally enjoyable new version, supercharged with dilithium crystals of pure melodrama. He appears opposite a sensationally good Lady Gaga, whose ability to be part ordinary person, part extraterrestrial celebrity empress functions at the highest level at all times.
Cooper shines behind the camera too
Cooper makes some smart plot choices, too. (The screenplay is by Eric Roth, Cooper and Will Fetters.) Jackson’s demise is sensitively handled—nothing like Kris Kristofferson crashing his car just so Streisand can rush to the scene and cradle his lifeless head with sorrowful gusto. (Who thought that was a good idea?) And he keeps the filmmaking straightforward and unvarnished. It’s wonderful to see a first-time filmmaker who’s more interested in effective storytelling than in impressing us; telling a story effectively is hard enough
Cooper and veteran screenwriter Eric Roth are clearly inspired most directly by the Streisand/Kristofferson film. But in those closeups that Cooper awards himself, and his huge moments of emotional agony … well, he’s channelling a bit of Judy. He certainly de-machos the role, and creates a backstory of vulnerability.
Cooper directed the movie himself, working from a script he co-wrote with Eric Roth and Will Fetters, and to say that he does a good job would be to understate his accomplishment. As a filmmaker, Bradley Cooper gets right onto the high wire, staging scenes that take their time and play out with a shaggy intimacy that’s shorn of the usual “beats.” The new “Star Is Born” is a total emotional knockout, but it’s also a movie that gets you to believe, at every step, in the complicated rapture of the story it’s telling.
Cooper turns out to be a good fit, with an efficient, straightforward handle on directing duties and an actor’s well-honed instinct for intimate character shading and interaction.
Believing in love again
This is where the movie loses a few puffs of steam. It’s hard not to miss Ally’s unadorned face and unflashy brown hair: You might find yourself wanting more Germanotta and less Gaga, Even so, Ally the superstar is still nowhere near as mythically outsized as Gaga herself is. In fact, as pop creations go, she’s rather average, though she certainly knows her way around a power ballad.
That’s part of the magnetic pull of this version — it, too, is a romance heightened by the seductive cruel mirror of showbiz. Yet it has a naked humanity that leaves you wowed. These two people, the rising star and the fading star, are locked in a love as true as it is torn, and both of them, by the end, become us. “A Star Is Born” is more than a throwback — it’s a reminder of the scrappy grand passion that movies are all about.
The star for a new generation
Best of all, Cooper has succeeded in making a terrific melodrama for the modern age. This is a story of big personalities and even bigger human mistakes. These days we’re always ready for our own close-ups. What a relief to turn the stage over to someone else for a change.
For all that it’s hokum, this film alludes tactlessly to something pretty real. It could be called: A Star Is Dying. The new generation supplants the existing one. For one star to get an award, a handful of defeated nominees have to swallow their pain, as the spotlight moves away from them. For one star to deliver the shock of the new, another one has to receive the shock of the old. A Star Is Born turns that transaction into a love story.
The fascination of this is that instead of satirizing Ally’s journey as some sort of plunge into synthetic marketing decadence, the movie says, in essence: This is the new landscape, same as the old landscape. Next to Jackson’s world, it looks “inauthentic” (and viewers of a certain age may automatically view it that way), but Jackson’s world probably looked inauthentic to the generation before it. The movie says that in pop (as in life), it’s always time for the old ways to die, and for the new ways to be born.
There’s freshness in the pared-back narrative shorthand of these scenes, as there is in Ally’s navigation of Jack’s excesses, on one hand giving him his space while on the other letting him know she won’t keep following him down his dark spiral. His issues are worsened by an acrimonious split from his much older half-brother and manager, Bobby (Sam Elliott, bringing his customary weathered integrity), and by the deterioration of a longtime hearing impairment.