“I wanted to be an actress before I wanted to be a singer, but music worked out first.” Lady Gaga accepting her 2016 Golden Globe Award for her performance in American Horror Story: Hotel
Facing that microphone and holding her award, Lady Gaga said she felt like Cher in Moonstruck. The reference was fitting. Like Lady Gaga, Cher was first a singer, then an actress. And for playing Loretta in Moonstruck, Cher took home the 1988 Best Actress Oscar. The remake of A Star Is Born is receiving Oscar buzz for Bradley Cooper as director and actor, and for Lady Gaga, not only for her performance, but for the many original songs she has written for the soundtrack.
At a time when both TV and film are finding it challenging to come up with original material (reference the small screen reboots of Magnum P.I., Murphy Brown, Will & Grace and the numerous sequels to films that didn’t do all that well the first time around), attempting a fourth version of A Star Is Born was a risk. The project seemed cursed, with big names like Clint Eastwood and Beyoncé bowing out. Cooper, however, was determined to make the film and his instincts are borne out by what he has produced.
He struck gold with his decision to cast Lady Gaga as Ally, the struggling singer/songwriter who makes up in talent what she lacks in self-confidence. She’s so unsure of her appearance that she can’t bring herself to sing her own songs. When she finally does, there are fireworks and there’s no turning back. A star is born.
For every star on the rise, there’s one that’s falling. Cooper’s Jackson Maine is on the descent long before he encounters Ally. Being a rock star is not all it’s cracked up to be. For Maine it means touring, long days and nights on the road spent alone in hotel rooms. Years of enduring loud music has resulted in tinnitus, noise-induced hearing loss with constant ringing in the ears. Maine, the son of a raging alcoholic, repeats that pattern, self-medicating with alcohol and drugs.
On the night Jackson meets Ally, he’s just finished wowing the crowds at a sold-out concert. (The concert footage was filmed at actual festivals, including Coachella, the cinematography by Matthew Libatique thrusting us into the middle of the action.) Finishing a bottle of booze in his limo, Jackson asks his driver to find a place where he can get a drink. The bar he stumbles into specializes in performances by drag queens. Ally, who was once a waitress at the bar, is a favorite and often performs. Her gay best friend, Ramon (an endearing Anthony Ramos), immediately recognizes Jackson, and after supplying the singer with a drink and a seat at the bar, tells him he’s in for a treat.
Although Ally is sensitive about her looks, particularly her nose, performing in a comfortable space surrounded by those who support her, she’s in her element. She delivers a sultry and sexy “La Vie En Rose,” an iconic Edith Piaf song and, not surprisingly, one of Lady Gaga’s favorites. Jackson is immediately smitten and doesn’t need much coaxing when Ramon invites him backstage. Unlike the drag queens who go gaga over Jackson (one asks him to sign her breasts), Ally seems puzzled about why he wants to meet her. He invites her to have a drink, but she makes excuses about washing the dye out of her hair and taking off her makeup. He tells her he will wait and she agrees.
When Ally emerges from the dressing room sans makeup, she looks young, innocent, and vulnerable. (Cooper was adamant about Lady Gaga going without makeup in some scenes.) But Ally is no pushover and she’s not afraid to ask questions and challenge Jackson. They end up sitting on a curb in a parking lot, and while there’s no physical interaction, it’s one of the most romantic scenes in the film.
When he asks her to attend one of his concerts, she resists, but finally says yes, flying along with Ramon on Jackson’s private plane. Looking onto the stage from the wings, she realizes he’s singing one of her songs. Despite her protestations, she’s soon on stage with him singing. Ally’s star power is on full display and the crowd goes wild, somehow realizing what’s happening is special.
We know how the story will end, but Cooper manages to tease it out in unexpected ways. The support cast is terrific. As Jackson’s older brother, Bobby, Sam Ellliott, plays the tough cowboy with a soft center. But even he has his limits and, unable to stop Jackson’s drinking and tired of the arguing, he ends up leaving the tour. Andrew Dice Clay is nearly unrecognizable in his role as Ally’s dad. A driver who once thought he was better than Sinatra, he believes in his daughter and is thrilled with her success. But his protective side comes out when Jackson’s drinking threatens her future.
Lady Gaga soars in several of the musical numbers. In fact, it’s easy to think we’re watching one of Lady Gaga’s concerts rather than her performance as Ally. The two become interchangeable. The big surprise is Cooper. It’s hard to believe that he hasn’t been singing and playing guitar all his life he’s so good.
Ally sings the final song, “I’ll Never Love Again,” an emotional tribute to Jackson. I couldn’t help but think of Barbra Streisand’s closing song in Funny Girl, “My Man.” Like Streisand who, coincidentally starred in the 1976 A Star Is Born, Lady Gaga sings her heart out, mourning a lost love. When that final tear falls, we’re done.
Photos courtesy of Warner Brothers Entertainment