Early in A Star Is Born — Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut of a story Hollywood’s been remaking every few decades since the Great Depression — Jackson Maine, the often-drunk rocker Cooper also plays, asks the singer he’s only just met in a drag bar (Lady Gaga) a question that in nearly any other circumstance would sound weirdly invasive.
“Can I touch your nose?” Jack asks.
The sight of Cooper running his finger down the middle Gaga’s face as the two converse in the middle of the night in an empty parking lot might be the most intimate moment in a movie full raw emotion — and the setup for one of the most brutal callbacks in any recent film. But it’s moments like that extended meet-cute and every other scene featuring just Cooper and Gaga that make this latest iteration an old story feel both new and timeless.
By now, you’ve probably read some magazine profile about how Cooper trained himself to be a more-than-adequate actual musician to play Jack, or how Gaga stripped away her glam to become Ally, the star who is born, or how the movie bounced from Clint Eastwood to Will Smith to Cooper and from Beyoncé to Esperanza Spalding to Gaga.
However the development process went, the finished product is astonishing. Cooper, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Roth (with an assist from William Wellman’s script for the 1937 original), has crafted a classic bit of Hollywood mythmaking that avoids so much of the stodginess that frequently drags down prestige studio fare.
Jack shouldn’t be likeable. The second scene features him slouching alone in the back of a limo emptying the latest bottle. He pops pills; he smashes and snorts others. He abuses the support he gets from his older brother (Sam Elliott as the kind of older, wiser Western man that only Sam Elliott can play). He can still rock a festival crowd, but he’s firmly in the shut-up-and-play-the-hits phase of his career. Yet when he stumbles into a drag bar in search of one more round and notices Ally — a hotel waitress who moonlights as the bar’s lone cis female performer — as she performs a sultry take of “La Vie en Rose,” he’s entranced and rejuvenated, as is the audience.
But this is not about a star that fades. Gaga is the main event here. As the summer’s unmissable trailers promise, Ally confesses after her drag show that her attempts to break into the music industry were rebuffed by producers who only wanted a certain look — one that does not include that nose of hers. Jack does not care. He loves Ally’s nose. He loves her voice (it helps that she sounds like Lady Gaga.) He loves the half-written song she tries out on him in that parking lot.
Perhaps Jack and Ally start this relationship as a crutch for the other. For Jack, she’s a bolt of energy and artistic inspiration. For Ally, he’s a way out of a life of itinerant service-industry jobs and sharing a house with her loving, but frustrating limo-driver father (Andrew Dice Clay, also great). When Jack brings Ally on his tour, it’s a whirlwind of frenzied crowds, soaring vocals and unbridled chemistry, but also reminders of Jack’s many demons.
The movie turns — as every version of A Star is Born does — when Ally is finally noticed by the industry that shunned her. A slick-talking British manager named Rez (Rafi Gevron) finds Jack and Ally backstage and says to her a version of what Jack once told her in one of his most vulnerable moments: that music should be about saying something and that she sounds like she has something to say.
The star formation that follows is not so authentic. Ally is made over, glammed up, saddled with choreographers and drum machines to become that interchangeable, disposable and ultimately forgettable kind of pop star. It’s the kind of career one imagines Stefani Germanotta might have had if she hadn’t combined the legacies of Warhol, Bowie, Madonna, Prince, and Alexander McQueen and invented Lady Gaga, who refreshed pop music by making it weird again.
But of course, Ally’s rise can only break Jack. The sweet moments — like an impromptu wedding facilitated by Jack’s childhood friend (Dave Chappelle, in a brief, but critical appearance) — become sparser. The fight in which an increasingly sozzled Jack haragues Ally while she’s soaking in the bath is an emotional evisceration. A sequence set at the Grammys is excruciating but necessary: Cooper’s directorial eye won’t turn away from the personal destruction, nor should it.
The final act is a three-hankie affair, but every sniffle is earned. Even as a first-time director, Cooper knows how to raise up the audience before landing his emotional punches. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s camera is often dreamlike. When it’s just Ally and Jack on screen, the rest of the world falls away. Jack’s backing band, played Lukas Nelson & the Promise of the Real (on loan from Neil Young and, yes, that’s Nelson as in Willie), gives the concert scenes the sound and rush of a sold-out stadium show.
Yes, the Gaga-and-Cooper iteration of A Star Is Born will probably vacuum up Oscars a few months from now. And maybe 20 years from now someone will make a version for whatever streaming channels exist then. Others have already commented that nearly every generation gets a take on this Hollywood tale. The 1937 Janet Gaynor-Fredric March original, and 1954 Judy Garland-James Mason edition have their defenders; the less said about the 1976 Streisand-Kristofferson rock musical, the better. When the next one arrives, it’ll be tough to reach the high notes Cooper and Gaga have here.