If you were skeptical of the trailers for “A Star Is Born,” which gave the re-re-re-revisited classic Hollywood tale a too-pat feel, let the film’s opening sequence reset your expectations. A handheld camera follows swaggering, staggering Western rock star Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper, who also directs) onto the stage before thousands of screaming fans. Jack shakes some prescription pills into his palm and tosses them back, then grabs his guitar and laces into a kind of Black Keys-via-Nashville anthem as you, the viewer, stay planted in the center of the action. Suddenly you’ve forgotten what you know about what’s to come — that Lady Gaga will rise from her dive-bar singing days to become, as the title insists, a very big deal — and give in to the raw, animal rush of flashing lights, a pulsing crowd and explosive rock ‘n’ roll. You inhale, for just a second, the hyperoxygenated air of fame. These are the stakes here: It’s got to be someone, so it might as well be you.
Cooper approaches this old Cinderella story with just the right amount of jaundice, and just the right amount of romance. Jack’s a megastar and he’s a drunk, it’s clear real quick, but he’s functional enough to stumble into a drag night at a random bar and see real talent when it sings “La Vie en Rose” to him in close quarters. Gaga’s Ally is the diamond in the rough destined to stay there, working some menial food-service job and living with her livery car driver father (Andrew Dice Clay), who was sure he could’ve out-sung Sinatra back in the day and who has already resigned her to a life of anonymity. But in very short order, Jack whisks her to a gig he’s playing and drags her onstage to sing one of her original songs in a scene that would, if not for the direction, be painfully campy. Again we’re on stage, in front of a screaming throng, the lights are up, the band is hot, and Ally — being Lady Gaga and all — has the pipes to absolutely detonate.
The song, “Shallow,” is one Lady Gaga co-wrote, and it’s an instant Oscar contender. Ditto Cooper as an actor, and as the director — hell, as the producer, too, because this is almost a sure thing for a Best Picture nomination. (Don’t be shocked if you see cinematographer Matthew Libatique and editor Jay Cassidy in that mix, either.) “A Star Is Born” works as a captivating concert film and as a nuanced celebration and critique of the costs of chasing fame via art. But it also works as an exceptional film on alcoholism, and as a fierce critique of masculinity and family. While Jack and Ally are the heart and the propulsion for the story, the strained relationship between Jack and his older brother (Sam Elliott) is just as searing. Cooper plays Jack with a gravelly rumble for a voice, even telling his older brother that he stole his voice — both a complement and a compliment to Elliott’s famous timbre, which has always sounded like sentient saddle just waking up. In just a half-dozen scenes together, the two actors convince you they’re family who’ve rarely been apart but still left too much unsaid.
Plenty of people will go expecting to see Gaga ignite in her own star turn; you’ve seen her on the silver screen before, but this performance is a leap in weight class, no offense to “Muppets Most Wanted.” Here she’s got to play Ally as a reluctant diva, and if you were going to design a challenge for Lady Gaga, that’s a tantalizing one. Yet even as Ally rides the heady rush of her own rise — fed largely by a cynical-bordering-on-sleazy exec played by Rafi Gavron — she never abandons her love for Jack.
Meanwhile, he fights the bottle and an encroaching tinnitus that threatens his career; they fight, and the tension feels earned. The final struggle here, though, isn’t against the trappings of fame so much as it’s against the harsh past that gave them something to say in the first place. Jack likes to tell Ally that she has to protect her real voice, even as she’s morphing from a folky songbird into a Gen Y pop sensation, and in a sense he’s talking to himself. The understated joy of “A Star Is Born” is watching how much she does to protect him along the way. Because when your voice goes, that’s it.