The marketing onslaught for the new “A Star is Born” focuses almost exclusively on the film’s first 45 minutes. It’s for good reason, as the courtship between music superstar Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) and an unknown singer/songwriter (Lady Gaga) is about as magnetic and thrilling as anything else on screen this year.
The rest of the movie, which serves as Cooper’s directorial debut, can’t sustain that magic completely, but it works hard to put a modern edge on a familiar tale. The story loses focus occasionally, but the music is consistently terrific and Gaga and Cooper deliver Oscar-caliber performances.
After one of his shows, Cooper’s drunken rock star stumbles into a bar to hear Gaga’s Ally deliver a predictably intoxicating rendition of “La Vie en Rose.” She’s a waitress by day, and after a few brushes with discouraging music industry types, she’s all but given up on performing her own songs.
But as romance blooms, so does Ally’s long dormant confidence, and, in the movie’s best scene, Jackson invites her onstage at a huge show to perform one of her original tunes. Despite the song being in a trailer that played in front of every movie this past summer, their performance of “Shallow” is a spectacular combination of good music, precise direction and a searing acting performance by Lady Gaga where Ally finally lets go of her performance anxiety.
As with all versions of “A Star is Born,” the back half of the story can’t be sunshine and rainbows. Jackson’s alcoholism and drug addiction comes into focus as Ally pursues a more pop-friendly sound. Cooper’s performance serves as an essential hinge to a haphazard stretch of the movie where Jackson and Ally get pulled in opposite directions. The movie pops whenever Cooper and Gaga are together, but the script (adapted by Cooper, Eric Roth and Will Fetters) crams in too much plot without a proper counterbalance of pathos.
The very presence of Gaga might be a contributing factor into her character’s lack of active conflict in the second half, as the movie sidesteps some “going pop/losing artistic integrity” cliches. While Jackson doesn’t like Ally’s new creative direction, the movie doesn’t demonize the switch either, perhaps because Gaga herself became a real-life superstar with a similar sound. Avoiding the cliche is a smart move, but “A Star is Born” unfortunately doesn’t replace it with a conflict for Ally beyond her diminishing relationship with Jackson. The result is Ally falling into the background of her own story.
Cooper at least offsets his narrative mistakes with some powerhouse music and effective relationship drama. Sam Elliott and Andrew Dice Clay add authentic, lived-in performances as Jackson’s older brother/manager and Ally’s working class dad, respectively. Dave Chappelle rolls in for a few entertaining minutes too as Jackson’s childhood friend.
Even while the movie gets a bit unfocused in places, “A Star is Born” remains an acting showcase for Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Both actors nail what you expect of them (the Gaga voice, the Cooper charm), then build full, compassionate characters that spark even more, especially when they’re together. And at the very least, the soundtrack is guaranteed to get stuck in your head.
Tyler Wilson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org