A Star is Born review: Lady Gaga proves she was Born to act in Bradley Cooper's terrific remake
Lady Gaga has often cited Madonna and David Bowie as key influences, and their Thespian endeavours must have given her pause for thought when she was asked to star in this film. Both Madge and Dave were bad actors, who made fools of themselves repeatedly by endeavouring to prove otherwise. In fact, it's hard to name a single pop star who isn't awful on film - until now.
Gaga is so good in A Star Is Born and on so many levels that she single-handedly justifies its existence.
When I first heard of plans for this rehash, I groaned. This, after all, is the third remake of a 1937 melodrama that hardly needed improving on. Janet Gaynor and Fredric March starred in that thoroughly winning production about a drunken Hollywood actor who falls in love with a brilliant, unknown actress just as his career is drifting toilet-ward. In 1954, it was remade as a musical with Judy Garland playing the starlet while James Mason staggered about magnificently as the sozzled has-been. It was refried as a Barbra Streisand vanity project in 1976, but the 1950s one has always been my favourite version - till now, perhaps.
Bradley Cooper directs and stars as ageing rock god Jackson Maine, whose years on the road have taken a toll on his health and hearing. He plays rousing country rock backed by a band so loud they sometimes sound like Neil Young's Crazy Horse: indeed I think one or two of them may actually be from Crazy Horse. His mid-range hearing is blown, he drinks vodka like it's Evian and, offstage, has the slumped posture of a man who long ago forgot how to enjoy himself.
Jackson's on his way home from a gig one night when his thirst for liquor overwhelms him. He stumbles from the stretch limo towards the bright lights of what turns out to be a rough and ready transvestite bar. There's a floor show, and among the eye-catching female impersonators is an actual female, Ally (Gaga), whom the open-minded owner allows perform.
Jackson sits smirking at the bar as Ally takes to the stage, but his sneer turns to slack-jawed wonder as she belts out a rousing version of Edith Piaf's 'La Vie En Rose'. Despite her obvious talent, she's winningly unselfconscious and when they talk afterwards, Ally tells Jackson how record company executives would say she sounded good, "but don't look so great". Jackson thinks she looks fantastic, and announces that her prominent nose is magnificent. He's right.
He asks her to attend one of his concerts as his special guest, and though she's initially suspicious of all the glitz and glamour, Ally's quickly swept up into the rock 'n' roll maelstrom, especially after Jackson invites her onstage to sing a duet. A star is born, as it were, but as Ally's career blossoms, his is entering a fatal tailspin.
A Star Is Born hasn't been made four times by accident: its central saga, of untainted feminine promise colliding with jaded masculine cynicism, has the timeless grandeur of a Greek legend, and first-time director Bradley Cooper has grasped the story's emotional core perfectly. His character is perhaps the most sympathetic of the Star Is Born male foils: he drinks medicinally, his pain emanating from a troubled relationship with a suicidal father and an older half-brother Bobby (Sam Elliott), who works as his tour manager and doesn't share Jackson's sentimental vision of the past.
He's at his lowest ebb when he meets Ally, whose raw talent and lack of cynicism makes him forget his worries... for a while. They fall in love, but both have cause to fret. Jackson wonders if the musical business will destroy everything that was true and original about Ally, especially after she takes up with a relentlessly commodifying English agent (Rafi Gavron), while Ally wants him to stop drinking before he kills himself.
Cooper's film makes subtle nods to the earlier versions: Gaga does a lovely Garland impression as she wanders up an alley during the opening credits, and the nose jokes are an obvious nod to Streisand. But this Star Is Born is effortlessly original, sure of its intentions, backed by a cracking soundtrack and grounded by Cooper and Gaga's performances. She is astonishingly good, raw and real, an effortlessly compelling actress, and when she sings, the screen lights up. They should give her the Oscar now.
Read Chris Wasser's review: A Star is Born review: 'Beautifully written, directed, shot, performed, edited, and scored - sensational'
Also releasing this week: Venom movie review: 'Flashy, vacuous bid to give Spider-Man's slimiest foe his own franchise'