There’s one truly great, chills-inducing scene in Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, the latest Hollywood remake of A Star Is Born (Grade: B). It’s the moment when all the pent-up crowdpleasing catharsis the movie has been withholding under its ramshackle, dive-bar minimalism comes erupting out of it like a geyser of feeling, and I confess to getting the exact shiver of pleasure the movie is aiming to provoke. Ally (Lady Gaga), an aspiring singer-songwriter who generally only performs on open-mic night at her local drag bar, is standing just offstage as Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), the country-leaning rock star she met the night before, performs a song she wrote. He’s asked for her to join him under the spotlight, and though she’s flatly refused out of pure stage fright (there are, after all, thousands of screaming fans out there watching), a flush of courage builds up in her as she witnesses him croon her words. So, steeling her nerves, she walks briskly into the light, just in time for the soul-baring chorus. The crowd, of course, loves her instantly. We do, too.
It would take colossal incompetence to not get a little rousing power out of the star-is-born moment of A Star Is Born. But Cooper, a far more talented image-maker than all of us assumed he’d be, doesn’t just rest on the cornball hook of seeing Ally grab her destiny by the mic stand, or even on the fact that the song itself, “Shallow,” turns out to be a sublime earworm ballad. No, what elevates this centerpiece moment from satisfying to transcendent is the trust Cooper puts in his own star, who turns the whole scene—from the agonizing waiting in the wings to the moment of bravery to the quivering joy she experiences on stage—into an awakening. It’s Gaga’s coming-out party, her own cross-medium coronation, but like his character, Cooper deserves credit for the assist: the way he keeps the camera locked tight on her face through the whole transformative experience, making the emotions running through her head and scrawling themselves across her features the whole show.
That remarkable scene reverberates through the rest of A Star Is Born, like a melody that gets stuck in your head. It may well be the key to the rapturous reception the movie has received since premiering at Venice a couple weeks ago. For maybe an hour or so, I was convinced that maybe Cooper had made the great, soulful Hollywood entertainment some have already called it. This is the fourth version of this story to roll out of the Dream Factory (the 1954 version, with Judy Garland, may be the gold standard), and Cooper, who co-wrote the script with Eric Roth and Will Fetters, doesn’t muck with the formula much, instead just giving it a new coat of cheap-seats, lighter-in-the-air romanticism that’s somewhere near the three-way intersection of Crazy Heart, 8 Mile, and the boho making-a-band musicals of John Carney. What he also gets, crucially, is that this well-trod material, a Cinderella story that crumbles into tragedy, lives or dies on the chemistry between its ingénue and her fading marquee mentor. And Cooper and Gaga have a surplus of that, forging a playful, smoldering connection across the film’s extended, meet-cute of an opening act.
I wish A Star Is Born preserved the laidback, naturalistic vibe of its first half, or that it somehow sustained the stirring high it reaches on stage with Ally and Jackson. All versions of this story reach a certain necessary comedown, as the rise portion of the evening ends and the fall begins. But in Cooper’s film, it really is downhill from “Shallow,” even as the movie depends on us keeping that performance in our hearts and minds. Part of the problem, too, is that this Star Is Born is built on a false and rather tired musical dichotomy, positing Jackson’s generic Americana rock as some kind of inherently worthwhile alternative to pop music—a turn that asks Gaga to knock out a synthetic radio smash much flatter than her own actual pop smashes, and us to buy that a young artist of Ally’s evident integrity would fall in line behind the corny cliché of a British A&R bloodsucker (Rafi Gavron). Still, Gaga keeps the film’s heart pumping. She’s down-to-earth and radiant—in other words, every bit as good as everyone has been saying. The movie isn’t, but the best moments echo loudly.