Review: Pop conquers all and the future is female in 'A Star Is Born'

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in "A Star Is Born"

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in "A Star Is Born" Clay Enos / Warner bros.

“It’s the same story told over and over,” Sam Elliott muses near the end of A Star Is Born, rumbling as always like the wisest of creaky floorboards. He’s talking about music, how every song just rearranges a finite set of 12 notes, but he could as well be describing the movie itself.

Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut is the fourth film to call itself A Star Is Born, and countless others have recycled some version of its plot of a rising female star eclipsing her doomed, drunken male lover. With a tune that familiar, you’ve got to hit all the right notes. Both Cooper and his glam co-star Lady Gaga come pretty damn close.

The boy-meets-girl setup of the first act is flawless. After drinking and drugging his way through another show, Cooper’s Jackson Maine staggers into a drag bar where Gaga’s Ally enraptures him with a performance of “La Vie en Rose.” They head to an after-hours spot where she starts a brawl and gets socked, he buys frozen peas at a supermarket for the swelling, and they sit on a curb and discuss art and fame till dawn. Soon Jack’s whisking Ally off on his private jet and cajoling her onstage to perform a song she wrote; when Gaga launches into her upper register, her eyes widen like Peter Parker discovering he can shoot webs.

Romantic movies ask a lot of us, often just shoving two attractive celebrities toward one another and demanding our credulity. But Cooper’s low-key charm and Gaga’s adorable old-Hollywood everygal quality match perfectly, and they know just how to look at each other to convince us they’re both seeing someone who has improbably and immediately changed their lives.

As a director, Cooper has an innate sense of pacing—the movie flows from one scene to the next without indulging in my-tracking-shot-is-longer-than-yours bluster, and his camera creates intimacy without any faux documentary pretensions. And in ace supporting performances, Dave Chappelle (as Jack’s old Memphis pal) and Andrew Dice Clay (as Ally’s father) each offer unlikely gravitas.

Though Jack has his reservations about Ally’s makeover into a pop star, the film doesn’t. A Star Is Born may be the sort of movie where characters insist that genuine art comes from the soul, but its soundtrack is wiser to the ways of showbiz. When it’s time for your tears, Gaga clobbers you with an expertly crafted schlock ballad. What Ally learned from the drag queens is the message of pop generally: The essence of stardom is less self-expression than self-reinvention.

That’s hardly a lesson some tired old rock and roller can learn. If Jack’s backstory feels sketched in after the fact, and the interaction with Elliot as his older brother feels particularly forced, that’s because Jack’s inevitable downfall is rooted in something more elemental. “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,” he groans on his fatalistic signature tune. But since he embodies a masculinity too brittle to adapt to change, he’s got to die with them. 

A Star Is Born 
Director: Bradley Cooper
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Dave Chappelle, Andrew Dice Clay
Rated: R
Theater: Area theaters, starts Friday