When the music is playing, the latest version of “A Star Is Born” soars. When the characters are performing, improvising, rehearsing or writing songs, the movie (which opens wide Friday) crackles with electricity. But all too often, when the music stops, the movie sags until someone picks up a guitar again.
This is the fourth Hollywood version of the classic showbiz story of mismatched lovers and misaligned careers. In the 1937 version, Norman Maine (Fredric March) is the Hollywood leading man who gets North Dakota farmgirl Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) her first audition and a new name: Vicki Lester. They make a movie and get married, she wins an Oscar, he drinks and commits suicide after his career collapses, and the grief-stricken widow famously proclaims to her fans, “This is Mrs. Norman Maine.”
The 1954 version follows the same basic outline with James Mason as Norman and Judy Garland as Esther/Vicki, but adds some incredible music for Garland, including “The Man That Got Away.” The 1976 remake starred Barbra Streisand as Esther Hoffman Howard and Kris Kristofferson as John Norman Howard. In this version, both characters are singers, Esther wins a Grammy and Streisand launched the hit song “Evergreen” which won a real-life Grammy and Oscar.
The latest version of the classic showbiz saga stars Bradley Cooper (who also wrote and directed) as Jackson Maine, a rock star who’s still at the top of his game but who is losing his hearing and is addicted to pills and booze. Late one drunken night, he accidentally stumbles into a gay bar. He watches Ally (Lady Gaga) perform “La Vie en Rose” and is instantly smitten. She reveals that she is reluctant to sing her own material; he convinces her to join him onstage and, the rest is showbiz legend. She becomes an overnight international superstar while he spirals out of control. At a memorial concert, she introduces herself as “Mrs. Jackson Maine” and premieres his final song, the haunting “I’ll Never Love Again.”
As writer, director and star, Cooper’s achievements are mixed. The screenplay (written by Cooper with Eric Roth and Will Fetters) wastes a lot of great talent in underwritten supporting roles that drop in and out of the story. Sam Elliott as Jackson’s craggy older brother, Dave Chappelle as Jackson’s friend Noodles, Anthony Ramos as Ally’s gay BFF and especially RuPaul alum D.J. “Shangela” Pierce as the drag bar emcee all deserve more screen time.
Surprisingly, the one supporting character who stands out is Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s loving but infuriating father Lorenzo, a frustrated singer and successful businessman. In a few excellent scenes, he creates a compelling character who is both Ally’s biggest fan and biggest obstacle.
Like the rest of the cast, Clay shines brightest in the reflected glow of Lady Gaga who turns in a bravura Oscar-worthy performance in her first major movie role. Gaga does something simply amazing. She creates a fully developed character named Ally who is certainly Gaga-esque but is definitely not Gaga.
Lady Gaga, who co-wrote all of her songs, also writes and sings convincingly in Ally’s voice. The songs believably reflect Ally’s emotions and experiences.
Gaga’s performances always sizzle. Her bond with the audience is palpable and her joy in entertaining is apparent in every note. Cooper on the other hand, is a fine actor but only a passable musician; his musical performances only catch fire when he’s singing with Gaga.