Early in her career, in films like Funny Girl, The Way We Were, and 1976’s A Star is Born, Barbra Streisand basically played a variation of the same character over and over again — an unconventional beauty who was both deeply talented and touchingly insecure. In these films, she was first saved and then wrecked by the love of a more established man. And because Streisand’s gifts—as a singer and actress and comedienne—were so manifest, she managed to make these arguably sexist premises seem triumphant—even, dare I say, feminist.
I’m not sure why Bradley Cooper chose to do yet another take on A Star is Born—the fourth!—for his directorial debut, but I suspect it’s at least partly because he saw a lot of Barbra in Lady Gaga, his leading lady. Like Streisand, she is beautiful but in such a way that it’s at least somewhat credible she might not know it. Like Streisand, her vocal talent has the ability to stop you dead in your tracks and shake you to your core. And it turns out, like Streisand, the lady can act.
Certainly, Cooper had selfish reasons to be drawn to the role of Jackson Maine, the alcoholic, pill-popping bluesy rock star who discovers Gaga’s Ally when he accidentally stumbles into a drag bar in search of a drink. For starters, Maine is the kind of tragically glamorous figure—in all his scuffed boots, boozy, musky masculinity—most actors would kill to play. Also, Cooper does his own singing and has a surprisingly strong voice, himself—gravelly and convincingly road-tested. (On a podcast I heard recently, Billy Eichner said that nothing makes an actor snatch a script out of their agent’s hand faster than the phrase: “You get to sing.”) Or maybe he just wanted to trot out his best Sam Elliott impression. (More on that in a bit.)
One thing Cooper’s film proves is that some stories are so reliably absorbing they deserve to be told again and again. That moment when Jackson first hears Ally at the bar—she’s performing “La Vie En Rose”—and is so overcome with emotion he actually tears up, is undeniable. It helps that both performances are so strong. We believe that talent like hers would rouse Jackson from his stupor and it’s wonderful to actually watch Jackson fall in love with Ally in real time.
From there, you probably know the rest. She becomes his girlfriend, joins him on tour; he encourages her to write her own songs and perform more; she gets discovered and becomes famous herself; and, as he suffers with both his addiction and encroaching tinnitus, her star eclipses his.
There’s lots of wonderful supporting work here from Anthony Ramos as Ramon, Ally’s devoted gay bestie; Andrew Dice Clay (yes him), as Ally’s dad, a failed singer who both loves his daughter and feeds into her low self-esteem over her looks; and Dave Chappelle as Jackson’s former partner in crime, now a happily married family man. As I mentioned, Sam Elliott is on hand as Jackson’s much older brother, also a failed musician (the film is littered with broken dreams), who now serves as Jackson’s all-purpose roadie, assistant, and fixer. There’s lots of unspoken history, animosity, and tortured love between the two brothers which comes into high relief as the film goes on. (Also, shout out to a couple of Ru Paul’s Drag Race faves—Willam and Shangela—who positively slay in their scenes at the drag bar.)
This is an astonishingly confident directorial debut from Cooper. The concert scenes are alternatively soulful and boot-stomping, but never anything less than arresting, and the snippets of backstage life crackle with authenticity. (Indeed, all of the film’s small touches—from the rapport among Ally's father's friends to life at the drag bar—feel authentic.) What’s more, the film has a sense of urgency that you might not think possible with material this familiar. It feels of the moment and essential.
A Star is Born is poised to be a monster hit—and deservedly so. On top of everything else, Gaga and Cooper have wonderful chemistry; the film takes the time to bask in their intimacy, as lovers, friends, and musical collaborators. In short, the film just works—as a love story, as a musical, as a gripping melodrama. In this case, two stars are born: Lady Gaga the actress and Bradley Cooper the director.