There’s a scene late in “A Star is Born” in which actor Sam Elliot explains a philosophy that music is merely 12 notes repeated in every octave, and that the real beauty is in the artist who can make them meaningful. It’s a solid observation for the third remake of the 1937 film of the same name, itself adapted from classic archetypes — the rising star, the falling legend and most of all, the tragic love story.
That tragic love story goes something like this: man meets woman; they fall in love; jealousy, fame, addiction and more get in the way. It’s simple and timeless. In this latest version of the story, Cooper plays the man, rockstar Jackson Maine, and Gaga the woman, aspiring songstress Ally.
But if anything, this 2018 remake feels like anything but. Just as songs are covered time and again by artists seeking to breathe new meaning to familiar words, here is a new cover of “A Star is Born,” updated for its day and age and dolled up with a stellar cast and an unexpectedly excellent director.
The pair first meet in a drag bar, where the local queens let Ally perform because of her talent and Jackson drops by in need of alcohol after a performance. The setting is a notable choice not only because it’s a sly hat-tip to Gaga's significance in queer subcultures, but also because it undercuts the expected machismo of Cooper's rockstar character.
More importantly, the sequence asserts immediately that Gaga and Cooper have the best screen chemistry this side of “The Empire Strikes Back." Both performers are positively electric, and a few tantalizing, furtive glances exchanged during a beautiful performance of “La Vie En Rose” immediately cement a connection between the two characters, jump-starting a dizzying first hour that’s spellbinding at every moment and utterly, stunningly perfect.
As a director, Cooper feels studied and assured. His camera lingers in close quarters with his characters, forcing a sort of intimacy that can be disquieting at times, but becomes ultimately powerful. His use of music is also stunning – the recently released track “Shallow” rounds out an all-timer film soundtrack – and his inspirations feel altogether classical.
From the movie’s gorgeous title card – red text straight from the golden days of Hitchcock superimposed over a symmetric shot that would make Kubrick weep with pride – it’s clear we are in the hands of a newborn auteur.
As an actor-turned-director, Cooper’s first concern is of course his actors, and he’s been gifted with a cast of godsends.
Gaga is completely brilliant in her role, which better win her an Oscar, lending Ally a kindness that makes her easy to root for and a slew of deep-seated desires that render her heart-achingly human. Paired with Cooper, who delivers a career-best performance, she’s a commanding and electrifying presence. That’s only compounded by the film’s willingness to let her express and reveal herself through music.
So intoxicating is their chemistry that as the film moves past the intimacy of their love story and into the heart-rending tragedy, it can feel distant at times. That’s largely because it feels wildly ambitious, but not balanced enough to pull off the plethora of plot threads and thematic turns it wants to. And because it moves from such a focused and sumptuous first hour into such a broad and crowded second half, things naturally get unwieldy.
There’s a solid 20-plus minutes in the middle that don’t work at all, as characters spin off in varying directions and the film rushes from one important plot point to the next with little care for the journey or the feelings that might invoke, but even in its sloppiest moments “A Star is Born” still works by the grace of its actors.
It seems there’s very little Gaga and Cooper can’t pull off, and they move through portions of the film other actors might not weather as well with grace and poise like sailboats miraculously riding out a tsunami.
Even the best singers trip over their own notes sometimes, and Cooper’s cover of “A Star is Born” feels fresh and exciting both in spite and because of its familiarity. This is a classic and timeless story, being retold in classic and timeless fashion.
In 40 years, when this movie is remade for the fourth time, with a fresher director and a fresher pair of star-crossed lovers, we’ll undoubtedly be scolding our children to “go watch the Lady Gaga version first.”