I must confess — I’ve never seen the 1976 “A Star is Born,” starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. That’s not particularly shocking to my younger readers, who may not even know the movie exists, but we’re talking about a huge hit film. It stumbled a little bit at the Oscars, only taking home one, but absolutely cleaned up at the Golden Globes, winning Best Actor, Actress, Song, Score and Best Picture. I just Googled the trailer and it looks truly unwatchable. Yeesh! I guess we’ll see what people say in 40 years about this week’s film, but I can’t imagine it will age as poorly.
The current incarnation of “A Star is Born” is directed by and stars Bradley Cooper in a truly transformative role. As aging rocker Jackson Maine, Cooper completely disappears, losing his snark, his polish, and his usual suave wit, becoming instead a deeply insecure addict who only truly comes alive when he’s performing. And perform he does. Cooper reportedly learned the guitar for this role and the result is amazing. The concert scenes are some of the most electrifying of the film. Starring alongside Cooper, Stefani Germonatta, aka Lady Gaga, is Allie, a talented hopeful who has long since given up on her dream after being told repeatedly that she’s just not pretty enough to be a star. When a chance encounter brings these two together, it appears the dye is cast. Allie is singing in a drag queen bar, the only real woman allowed to, and Maine sees her talent immediately. Where it would be easy to write the older star’s interest in the younger as a somewhat calculated investment, Cooper doesn’t play it that way, instead playing Maine’s infatuation as an attraction to the purity of her performance in contrast to the cynic he’s become.
As Jackson brings Allie along, introducing her to the right people, giving her access to the power players, his own life and career begin to nosedive. Is the drugs and booze he can’t let go of, or is the thought of Allie being swallowed up into the industry machine just too much to take? Make no mistake, this is a powerful film and everybody involved is bringing their A-game.
Cooper is phenomenal, and I’ll talk about Lady Gaga in a moment, but it would be a disservice to fail to mention the incredible supporting cast in this film. Sam Elliott is always good, but here he is more vulnerable than I’ve ever seen, even while maintaining that rugged cowboy facade. Comedy legend Dave Chappelle shows up for a brief cameo, but manages to create a lovely character in just a few minutes of screen time. For “Hamilton” fans, there is a small role for Anthony Ramos, aka John Laurens, as Allie’s best friend and confidant. And finally, a true surprise to me is Andrew Dice Clay absolutely killing it as Allie’s doting father. I missed Clay’s big revelatory movie, “Blue Jasmine,” from Woody Allen so his performance here was completely unexpected. He’s absolutely great playing an aging driver who’s lived his life adjacent to celebrity. I was blown away.
I was blown away a lot in this film, but none more than by Lady Gaga herself. She does an incredible job in this role. So good, in fact, that you completely forget who you are watching. Can you imagine Beyoncé, Madonna, or Michael Jackson being able to completely disappear like that? And make no mistake, Gaga is in that company. Honestly, I wasn’t sure, watching her in this intensely personal, intimate role, why she was doing it. She can’t need the money, and as far as acclaim, she’s got more than her share, for sure. She burst onto the music scene 10 years ago and has broken every record known, but always as this bizarre, costumed, larger-than-life character Lady Gaga. This isn’t her first role — she’d done some bit parts and a cameo here and there, eventually winning a Golden Globe for her work on “American Horror Story.” But this is the first time, as far as I can tell, that she’s really let her guard down and put herself out there. This performance is raw and completely open — to the point where Cooper and his cinematographer fill the screen with close-ups of her face — daring anyone to suggest her looks would be a career killer. From what I’ve read, the struggles of Allie’s early career closely match the experience Gaga had, which could explain her years behind a veil of crazy hair and make-up.
As a director, Cooper is a tour de force. The film has a slightly unpolished, jittery feel — not to the level of a Paul Greengrass Bourne movie, but just a touch of reality. As I mentioned, his concert footage is phenomenal, which is helped by the fact that the music in the film is great. A buddy of mine predicts that this film will grab four of the five song categories at this year’s academy awards, and I think he’s probably right. This isn’t a movie I was all that interested in seeing. I’d heard the early hype and was encouraged, but still — a sappy romance about an aging singer and an ingenue just didn’t sound particularly interesting. Cooper solves that problem by losing the sap and dialing up the quality of the music. It’s easily in my top ten, and could easily end up being my favorite film of the year. Grade: A+
“A Star is Born” is rated R for language, sexual situations, brief nudity, and drug use.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.