If anybody's counting, this is the third American remake of 1937's A Star Is Born (there are several more in other languages), followed by versions in 1954 and 1976. Before you go off about Hollywood's inability to come up with anything original, consider that my children have never seen any of the other versions and probably don't even know they exist. The only reason they know Judy Garland is because she was Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.
All versions have common threads — an aging performer, his own career having crested mostly due to substance abuse, falls in love with and sponsors a talented young protege whose meteoric rise compounds his depression and feeling of worthlessness, resulting in an increase in his abuse. That being said, the 1976 Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson version is obviously the template for this most recent attempt more so than any other version.
This time, the male performer is played by Bradley Cooper (who also film's directs, co-produces and co-writes), and the rising newcomer by Lady Gaga, formerly known as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. Cooper is a fine actor and delivers a fine performance as Jackson Maine, a hopeless addict whom you love in spite of himself and in spite of his spats with his much older brother (Sam Elliott).
In his first outing running things behind the camera, Cooper directs with unusual panache, aided by exquisite work from cinematographer Matthew Libatique. Make no mistake: This A Star Is Bo is an A film. Of course, the real test is if director Cooper make his audience fall in love with Ally, the blue-collar girl who writes music without any real hope of establishing a career — and perhaps even more importantly, if can he make us love her talent.
The answer is yes. Cooper's staging of his, her and their various musical interludes are beautifully performed, shot and edited. Happily, the camerawork and rich color palette neither add to nor detract from Ally's — and Gaga's — talent and passion. Gaga delivers a stunning performance, even while convincing us that she's as green an actress as Ally is a singer, and maybe she is. Even though she's appeared in a number of movies and TV episodes, from a walk-on on The Sopranos to queen of L.A.'s vampires in American Horror Story, this is the first real test to see if she can carry a feature film. She doesn't just carry it — she picks it up and runs with it, and her rough edges render her even more honest and endearing, even her self-deprecating jabs at her own profile. I suspect she'll be singing one of the film's songs at next year's Oscars, probably "I'll Never Love Again."
Despite the high production values and a delightful and ingenious opening 20-minute act which covers Jackson's and Ally's meeting and first date, the second half of the film becomes less fun, even difficult to watch because of Jackson's descent after he realizes the star he's discovered is outshining him. It's endemic to the story, but, as Ally's popularity waxes and she's put into stage-ier costumes and makeup — with glitter eyeshadow, no less — I found myself missing the simpler, less-decorated character we got to know in the first act, but I guess that's the point. Happily, the only miscalculation in the screenplay might be the inclusion of a manager (Rafi Gavron) whose function is as the snake in Allys and Jackson's paradise, a character too underdeveloped to have such an important function.
Nevertheless, this A Star Is Born contains Class A production values in what very well might be the best film version of this oft-told tale. It made me love and enjoy the characters, the performances and the music — despite them being wrapped up in a formula I’ve never particularly liked.