Movie Review: Lady Gaga Makes Her Bid to Conquer Hollywood in the Immersive 'A Star Is Born' | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Movie Review: Lady Gaga Makes Her Bid to Conquer Hollywood in the Immersive 'A Star Is Born'


Published October 10, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated October 12, 2018 at 10:52 a.m.

A Star Is Born is the Hollywood story that will not die. Filmed in 1932 (as What Price Hollywood), 1937, 1954 and 1976, the material has often served not to launch a new star but to showcase an already-huge one (Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand). The new version follows that pattern. Lady Gaga plays the fresh young talent who's plucked from obscurity by a boozing megastar on the wane (Bradley Cooper). And Cooper, who also directed, makes sure we know the movie is ultimately about her.

In two reaching-for-iconic shots, one toward the beginning and one at the end, Gaga faces the camera in extreme close-up. She seems to lock eyes with us, epitomizing the illusion of intimacy that silver-screen stars have been fostering for a century. And she nails it; if we had any doubts that this pop star could also be a movie star, we don't after this film.

As a launch pad for Gaga's movie career, A Star Is Born couldn't be any better. How is it as a movie, though? In her review of the Streisand version, Pauline Kael claimed there's a "trap built into" the material. Because the nascent star is so selfless in her romance with the doomed has-been, their story lacks conflict: "The vacuum in this movie is the purity of their relationship."

Cooper's version doesn't escape this built-in flaw, but the problem doesn't catch up to the movie until its tragic (or melodramatic, depending on your perspective) second half. For its first hour-plus, A Star Is Born captures the exhilaration of new love and new creation better than any movie in years.

When country-rock star Jackson Maine sees restaurant worker Ally singing Edith Piaf in a drag bar, he's smitten. She knows who he is, but she won't play the groupie game, and they quickly develop a teasing tension that carries them through to the movie's high point. When Jack invites Ally onstage to sing her own composition, she's terrified, but she's a born performer seizing her chance. Gaga shows us both the fear and the fierceness as she delivers a star-making rendition of a showstopping ballad.

From the performance scenes through to the bedroom drama, Cooper goes for a quasi-naturalistic style reminiscent of the '70s, albeit adorned by the sumptuous cinematography of Matthew Libatique (Black Swan). Scenes end quickly, emphasizing the contrasts between onstage glamour and off-stage bleakness as alcoholism takes Jack downhill. Dialogue tends to overlap; nonverbal moments, such as Jack's reaction when a producer (Rafi Gavron) starts courting Ally, pack the biggest punch.

While Cooper also gives a wrenching performance, he and the screenwriters never quite solve that whole lack-of-conflict problem. In a few scenes, Jack suggests that Ally's betraying her talent when she allows herself to be molded into a pop diva; she appears to disagree. But before they can really have it out, we're off on the familiar track to tragedy, with Gaga making the same showy displays of self-sacrifice that Garland and Streisand made before her.

In the old days, perhaps, it was radical enough for a woman to outshine her husband professionally; God forbid she also be less than 100 percent supportive of his falling star. In a contemporary setting, it's hard not to wish for a bit more grit and anger and less pie-eyed romanticism in the movie's second half. Ultimately, though, this is a Hollywood story. Nothing is allowed to taint the new star's sheen as she takes her place in the firmament and, boy, does she ever shine.

The original print version of this article was headlined "A Star Is Born"