Bradley Cooper must have been a good student.
In “A Star is Born,” he doesn’t just repeat the successes of his predecessors, he finds ways to improve upon them. Put this edition next to Barbra Streisand’s and you can see how it’s more than just one person’s vision.
Lady Gaga – who plays the eclipsing singer – contributes greatly, offering songs she has written and one of those winsome, realistic performances that makes you want to go along on her journey.
Cooper plays her mentor, Jackson Maine, a grizzled Americana singer with an attachment to drugs and alcohol. He’s drunk when he meets her – at a drag club, no less – and he’s drunk throughout much of their relationship.
Nonetheless, she still loves him and tries to cover when it’s clear others want him out of the picture.
As good as they are, though, Gaga and Cooper can’t edge Sam Elliott for pure emotion. He gets a couple of scenes that should put him on the short list for Best Supporting Actor and up a few notches as Hollywood’s favorite grizzled guy.
Playing Cooper’s much-older brother, Elliott tries to ground the singer when others won’t. He says hurtful things simply to get his brother on track. Gaga’s Ally, meanwhile, uses love and support. Both tactics aren’t quite enough.
Using a lower register (and a lot of mumbling), Cooper makes us feel Maine’s pain. He’s hurting (not unlike Kurt Cobain) and he doesn’t really know where to turn.
When she wins a Grammy for Best New Artist, he insists on going on stage with her. He wets himself, too, and becomes the embarrassment she doesn’t need.
Cooper – who also directed, co-wrote, co-composed and co-produced the film – has an analyst’s eye, finding just how much he needs to use in order to leave an impact. Songs aren’t always finished (sometimes he just offers the chorus); scenes run only as long as they need to. There are hints of things like “Fame” that give this, the fourth “Star is Born,” a different vibe.
Gaga, meanwhile, is so effortlessly real it’s like we’re watching a documentary. She could do the Amy Winehouse story in a heartbeat. But “Star is Born” is her Bette Midler moment. It gives her all the scenes necessary to make an impact.
The music is just as great. The songs comment on the action and become anthems we’ll hear, no doubt, for years to come.
If Cooper makes any misstep, it’s in painting Ally’s manager (Rafi Gavron) as such a villain. He’s a catalyst, but others could have been equally responsible.
Still, “A Star is Born” is one of those films that thrives on talent, not special effects and fleeting storylines. Its surprise is how many stars it births. Cooper emerges as a major director, singer and writer. And Gaga becomes a Streep-level acting talent.
That, alone, should put Cooper at the head of any class.