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‘A Star is Born’ burns bright

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Predicting the relative success of a film, whether commercially or critically, is no easy feat. Sometimes, all the pieces are there for a hit, only for the final product to fall short. Other times, what looks like an abject disaster proves to be a runaway smash.

And then there are those movies that you can’t quite get a read on.

“A Star is Born” was one such film for me. I love Bradley Cooper as an actor – I think he’s got real talent – but how was he going to be in his directorial debut? Especially when he would be directing himself? And Lady Gaga is an undeniable musical powerhouse, but could she transcend her persona enough to create a character that felt real? Would the movie elicit genuine pathos … or simply come off as pathetic?

After seeing the movie, let’s check those boxes. First, Cooper displayed far more directorial talent than I would have expected from any first-timer, let alone someone directing himself. Second, Gaga is absolutely captivating in this role, exposed and vulnerable in a way we rarely see her. And finally – pathos. Wave after wave of elicited emotion … and every feeling is well-earned.

The story is simple and compelling. The performances are raw and heartfelt. The aesthetic is honest and the music is spectacular. It uplifts and undercuts with equal abandon. It is a fantastic movie experience the likes of which we don’t often see anymore – one that will almost certainly reap rewards come awards season.

Jackson Maine (Cooper) is a veteran rock and roll icon dealing with the aftereffects of years of music stardom – namely, hearing problems and substance abuse issues. He’s still a big name, but one who is nevertheless slowly fading from the cultural consciousness; his much older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott, “The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot”) is there to try and keep him healthy and out of trouble - not an easy gig.

One night following a show, Jackson is looking for a place to drink. His driver drops him off at a bar – a bar that turns out to be hosting a drag night. However, one of the performers is neither a drag queen not a lip sync artist – she’s singing for real. Ally (Lady Gaga) absolutely slays a performance of the French classic “La Vie en Rose” – and captures Jackson’s attention. He goes backstage and meets her and they spend the rest of the night in one another’s company, talking about music and life and so much more. He invites her to join him at his next show. She laughs it off.

The next day, at home where she lives with her dad Lorenzo (Andrew Dice Clay, TV’s “Hap and Leonard”), Jackson’s driver shows up to whisk her away to Jackson’s next show. Ally and her friend Ramon (Anthony Ramos, “Summertime”) travel by private jet to the concert, where Jackson winds up pulling her onstage to sing one of the songs she sang for him during their evening adventure.

A video of the performance goes viral and before long, Ally is joining Jackson on tour. The two perform together every night; the chemistry they have on stage soon extends to their lives offstage. Their romance is complicated, however, by the rapid ascendency of Ally’s star alongside the gradual decline of Jackson’s. She gets a manager and a pop star makeover, complete with backup dancers and billboards and the whole shebang; meanwhile, Jackson starts to spiral.

Their love story is a complicated one; while there’s no denying the feelings they have for one another, the circumstances of the world in which they operate present more than a few obstacles to their relationship. Jackson and Ally are stars, yes, but also star-crossed – despite their best efforts, true happiness might be beyond their grasps.

I’ll admit to only vague familiarity with the previous incarnations of this film; I’ve seen the 1976 Streisand/Kristofferson version once and I’ve never seen the 1955 Moss Hart-penned Judy Garland-starring version at all. So I can’t speak to how this latest film holds up in comparison.

What I can say is that Cooper is no slouch in the director’s chair; he has a sharp visual eye that creates some dynamic stage pictures. He also maximizes the story’s emotional clout in ways both overt and subtle. It would be strong work from anyone, let alone a first-timer.

Of course, he does have the benefit of himself as an actor; Cooper’s raspy, grizzled Jackson Maine is purportedly modeled on Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, among others. It’s a vivid take on the trope of the broken-down rock star, lost in a fog of fame. His voice isn’t bad either. Meanwhile, Lady Gaga gives an unexpectedly nuanced performance as Ally; she exudes a sensitivity that is the polar opposite of her over-the-top musical persona. Her Ally is shy, dignified and unwaveringly loyal – it all plays beautifully. Oh, and she sings the s—t out of some fantastic songs.

The supporting cast is strong across the board as well. Elliott is his usual soft-spoken tough guy self, the eternal cowboy. Clay once again proves to be perhaps the most unexpectedly good actor of the last 30 years. Dave Chappelle is marvelous in a couple of scenes as Jackson’s childhood friend. All in all, the cast shines.

“A Star is Born” is movie magic. In terms of performance and production and everything in between, it shines. When the time comes to start talking about trophies, expect to hear this title mentioned a lot. One of the best yet in 2018.

[5 out of 5]

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