movie review

A Star Is Born Is One Hell of a Magic Trick

Photo: Warner Bros.

No matter what you think of Lady Gaga (née Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta), it should be a relief to hear that Bradley Cooper’s rousing A Star Is Born is not Gaga Land. The Lady is very much down to earth and compos mentis. Discovered by country-and-western star Jackson Maine (Cooper) after he inadvertently stumbles, blotto, into a drag bar in search of more booze and watches her transform “La Vie en Rose” into the sultriest of ballads, Gaga’s Ally accepts his attention with a mix of infatuation and wariness.

He’s a drunk, you see, like her dad (Andrew Dice Clay!), and also incredibly famous, which her dad has always pushed her to be despite agents and managers telling her that her nose is too big. Yes, you read that right. Lady Gaga triumphs as a young woman averse to artifice and the pursuit of fame. It’s a hell of a magic act.

The first half of A Star Is Born couldn’t be more charming. It leaves all three previous versions in the dust in the meet-cute department, largely because Gaga manages to be fresher and more believably real than Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland (who looked dissipated), and Barbra Streisand. And Cooper is delightful. Although he’s largely hidden behind a beard, long hair, and a squint, his purring bass-baritone is to swoon over. That it’s stolen from Sam Elliott makes it all the more amusing when Elliott shows up as Jackson’s much older brother and accuses Jackson of stealing his voice. Scenes that should make you groan work like gangbusters, among them the one in which Jackson pulls Ally onstage before a packed arena to sing a song of hers that he heard once but can reproduce from memory. (The band starts tentatively and then begins to nod — Hey, this is good — when they see her talent.) Cooper’s direction is so tight and intimate—his camera handheld, level with the characters — that you root hard for the sequence to work. It would suck if it didn’t.

Maybe your affection for the first half will even pull you through the much lesser second, but the story remains schmaltz, and Cooper and co-screenwriters Eric Roth and Will Fetters haven’t rethought it for the age of YouTube and American Idol, when much of the star-making apparatus is devoted to making celebrities seem closer to us mortals. There’s no satire, nothing to distinguish music stardom now from the ’30s, ’50s, or ’70s. Worse, Gaga’s Ally loses all agency. Manipulated by a cynical Brit manager called Rez (Rafi Gavron), who’s probably meant to evoke Simon Cowell, she settles into a middling groove at the point when you want to see a Gaga-like supernova. Mostly, she suffers prettily.

Cooper kills in the later scenes, when he’s struggling with sobriety and escalating tinnitus. He doesn’t jerk your tears — he eases them out until you suddenly realize you’re a mess. But this is A Star Is Born for an era in which alcoholism is a “disease,” and unless Maine is at least partly a heel — a jealous sonuvabitch — the story has no melodramatic pulse. It won’t matter to most audiences, though, who’ll be there for a glimpse of the soul under the meat dress and want to see Gaga at the Oscars as much as they want to see Ally at the Grammys.

*A version of this article appears in the October 1, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

A Star Is Born was nominated for eight Oscars in 2019, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Original Song.

A Star Is Born Is One Hell of a Magic Trick