The basic rags-to-riches-to-ditches story has been set in stone since its first incarnation in What Price Hollywood (1932) but was then recycled as A Star Is Born in 1937 – a showbiz romance-cum-tragedy that has stood the test of musical times since then (with the finest being Judy Garland’s 1954 version, the most bloated the 1976 Barbra Streisand vanity production) and returns in 2018 as big-studio schmaltz of a very hip, crowd-pleasing order and throbbing with wall-to-wall catchy pop melodies.
Skilfully assembled by Bradley Cooper on his auspicious feature directing debut and highlighting an open-hearted, winning performance from diva Lady Gaga, this Hollywood warhorse about a struggling star in the making who falls for a hard-drinking singer on the way down hits the gold standard for tart soap opera. An assured rehash it may be, but it’s one that’s surprisingly slick, emotionally affecting and packing a final unexpectedly meaningful punch.
Alcoholic, drug-addicted country-and-western superstar Jackson Maine (Cooper) stops off for a nightcap at the Bleu Bleu drag bar and catches the only female performer the queens allow on stage singing Piaf’s signature tune La Vie en Rose. Besotted by her evident vocal talent, Jackson invites waitress Ally (Gaga) to his next arena gig and cajoles her on stage to belt out one of her own compositions, which delivers a record number of hits on YouTube and a contract with top British agent Rez (Rafi Gavron).
But after the two get married and Ally wins a Grammy for her debut album, Jackson finds himself relegated to the background as his reliance on booze and pills swamps his own diminishing career. Time in rehab seems to help until some unfortunately well-chosen words from Rez encourage Jackson to make the ultimate sacrifice before his barely contained demons take down his beloved as well. However, it isn’t all over until the fab lady sings the blues and declares herself “Mrs Jackson Maine” after a flashback montage of all the couple’s most memorable moments.
This fourth iteration of A Star Is Born is a captivating package of effortless direction, graceful subtleties and dynamic central casting that finds its bedrock in the core romance and believable chemistry between a career-best Cooper and a rough-yet-ready Gaga. Both give deeply affecting turns as the devoted duo, mutually supportive no matter what life throws at them. From their meeting in the drag bar (Gaga playing shamelessly to her gay fanbase) and supermarket car-park courting to the not-so cut-and-dried reasons for Jackson’s downward spiral (he’s losing his hearing) and award-ceremony stage embarrassment, their initial excitement about and respect for each other never waivers as they build a truly convincing relationship. Through confidence and backup, Ally never stops supporting Jackson and he is never self-pitying or spiteful about her success. Cooper’s masterstroke is never forgetting that his eloquent entertainment is a love story first and foremost, and must remain so right to the bitter end.
Kudos should also be given to Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s limo-driver father, whose dreams of being Frank Sinatra kept his daughter’s own hopes alive, and as Jackson’s older brother-turned-carer Bobby, veteran star Sam Elliott mines his few scenes for character gold. Occasionally along the way the glitterball does get dropped: it’s scarcely credible that only after one day together, Jackson would provide Ally with a stage spotlight (that’s a bit like an episode of Nashville) and Rez’s advice to make Ally’s act glitzier by turning her into, well, er, Lady Gaga, is a little too on the nose even by these loose self-referential standards.
And while the soundtrack is easy on the ears, there’s really nothing on first hearing to match Judy Garland’s uber-torchy The Man That Got Away or Barbra Streisand’s MOR classic Evergreen. Time will only tell, of course. But there’s no denying this is an enormously satisfying and well-tuned blockbuster gala musical; a vibrant, up-to-date Super Trouper crackling with happiness and heartbreak, sprinkled with stardust and star-maker gumption.
A Star Is Born is released in cinemas on Wednesday 3 October