It's been a decade since Lady Gaga's star was born in a cloud of upbeat pop and outlandish costuming, but with her first major film role, it's happening all over again. Stripped of the makeup, outfits and theatricality that have shaped her stage persona since she told the world to just dance, the singer is a revelation in A Star Is Born — both because of and despite the obvious. Belting out heartfelt ballads and throwaway pop alike, she clearly has the voice for the job. That said, it's how she performs when she's not crooning the movie's catchy tunes that's truly special. Like an actor gaining weight or sporting a physical ailment, wiping the gloss off an existing megastar might seem an acting cliche, however Gaga isn't simply playing tourist with normality.
The 'Poker Face' popster plays Ally, who works in hospitality by day and unleashes memorable versions of 'La Vie En Rose' in a drag bar by night. An ordinary woman dreaming big, writing her own songs but never thinking that she'll make it, it's a part that Gaga lives and breathes with earthy, unguarded authenticity — almost as though she's been through it herself. The singer is electric in A Star Is Born's early scenes, as boozy country rocker Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) catches her club act, convinces her to have a drink with him and sparks fly. When he takes her home the next morning, says goodbye and then calls back to her from his limousine window, Jackson says what everyone watching is thinking: "I just want to take one more look at you".
And look he does. Thanks to Jackson, his adoring gaze, and his certainty that Ally has both a genuine voice and something genuine to say, her fantasies start coming true. When he sends a driver to take her to one of his stadium shows, brings her out on stage and they duet one of her songs, the movie's title starts ringing true too. Love blossoms also, but Ally and Jackson's tale is one of rising as well as falling. For Jackson, the combination of alcoholism, hearing loss and childhood trauma leave a wound that only cuts deeper as Ally shines and his career fades.
An aspiring talent striving to see their name in lights is one of the oldest narratives in Hollywood's book. In A Star Is Born's case, it dates back to 1937 — or 1932 if you count What Price Hollywood?, whose studio almost sued the original A Star Is Born for plagiarism. Across eight decades now, this sweeping tale just keeps hitting the screen, complete with remakes starring Judy Garland in 1954 and Barbra Streisand in 1976. With Gaga leading the charge this time around, it's easy to see why A Star Is Born keeps glowing. A crash course in the highs and lows of the American dream, it's a fantasy where wishes come true, but where everything has a cost. It's also an underdog story, a star-crossed romance, an account of trying to make it in entertainment, a drama about substance abuse and a warning about fame's many ills.
Most of all, A Star Is Born is an unashamed melodrama. While that's a term that's been given a bad name of late, wrenching emotion and heightened drama is exactly what this story calls for. Not only co-starring but jumping into the writer and director's chairs for the first time, Cooper doesn't skimp on sentiment, with every passionate kiss, overwhelming moment and tragic development landing with undeniable force. And yet, his film never wallows in sappiness or spoon-feeds its feelings to the audience – even when it charts blatant plot points that even newcomers to the tale will spot, or suffers from bloat in its mid-section. Seamlessly updating the narrative for the 21st century with co-scribes Eric Roth (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) and Will Fetters (The Best of Me), Cooper understands the power of the material. A Star Is Born has been wowing audiences since the 1930s, after all.
It helps that Cooper has a knack for visual storytelling, working with cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Mother!). A Star is Born's imagery sings its own affecting tune, with the actor-turned-director favouring shots that are grounded in the emotion of the narrative. Cooper also does his part as performer, both acting the sorrowful part and holding his own when it comes to his vocals. But his biggest gift to the movie is his willingness to let his collaborators glisten.While A Star Is Born is a definite showcase for a debut filmmaker who stars, croons, writes and directs, it gleams brighter thanks to the space and weight given to its cast. Sam Elliott is in astonishing form as Jackson's equally gruff and tender older brother, Dave Chappelle waxes kind and wise as an old pal telling it like it is, and Andrew Dice Clay is warm and protective as Ally's supportive dad. And, jumping from being one of the world's biggest pop stars to playing one of the world's biggest film roles, Gaga is far from the shallow now.