It's a classic tale of passion and art: he's a superstar who meets a young hopeful, falls in love with her, and urges her to chase her dreams, only to see her fame eclipse his as he struggles to navigate his downward spiral without losing her love. If the plot of "A Star Is Born" sounds familiar, it should - Hollywood loves this story, as evidenced by the three other versions (the 1937 original, a Judy Garland musical, and a glitzy mid-70s take with Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson) that precede this new release starring Bradley Cooper ("Guardians of the Galaxy 2") and Lady Gaga (American Horror Story: Hotel) as the star-crossed singers. Because it's a high-profile remake as well as Mr. Cooper's directorial debut, "A Star Is Born" received a ton of pre-release hype. So, does it live up to these vaunted expectations? Yes...mostly.
There's a lot to like in "A Star Is Born," beginning with beguiling lead performances from Mr. Cooper and Ms. Gaga. On paper they are an odd match, but onscreen the pair exhibit a chemistry that's both soaring and believable. The script calls for something of a whirlwind romance as the two meet at a drag bar - he's Jackson Maine, a famous musician who also happens to be a staggering drunk, and she's Ally, an aspiring singer who gets occasional stage time by gamely decking herself out as a drag queen - but the film grounds their instant connection in a shared passion for music, and it works.
That passion, explored consistently throughout the film, is certainly a strong point. Sparks virtually fly off the screen when Jack hears Ally belt out a knockout version of "La Vie En Rose" that first night in the bar. Later, when she haltingly sings a few lines from a tune she's been writing, he gazes at her like a lost wanderer who's finally found a member of his tribe. "A Star Is Born" is, initially at least, a fairy tale, so the smitten prince sweeps the lady off her feet and whisks her away to one of his concerts, where he tries to lure her onstage to sing a spiffed-up version of her new song. Ms. Gaga nails the moment, as we see Ally struggle but finally swallow her self-doubt and make her way into the spotlight. The resulting duet is a shiver-inducing moment of pure magic, and these two characters continue to be at their best when they can put aside the increasingly distracting - and in some cases, destructive - details of their lives and reconnect over the way that both need music the way they need air.
But there are many, many complications, from Jackson's alcoholism and deteriorating hearing - virtual death to a musician - and stressful squabbles with his older brother and tour manager Bobby (Sam Elliott, "The Hero") to the increasing demands of Ally's career and the unhelpful meddling of her new manager (Rafi Gavron), who's no fan of Jack. If you know anything about this story, you know that it's headed into rough territory. There will be tears.
Mr. Cooper directs with a sure hand that belies his neophyte status behind the lens but effectively incorporates his many years of experience in front of the camera. In short, he's an actor's director, and he's drawn startlingly deep and natural performances from his cast, many of whom have distinguished themselves elsewhere in fields that by contrast rely more on bravura and artifice. Of course there's Ms. Gaga, whose baroque, intricately choreographed stage presentations and showy performance on American Horror Story provided no hint that she was capable of the modulation, candor, and vulnerability she brings to the role of Ally. For a performer who is almost always seen in wild costumes and layers of theatrical makeup to appear onscreen barefaced, as Ms. Gaga does for much of the first half of the film, is an affecting act of trust, and it pays off beautifully. This is a performance that could take her career in a completely new direction.
Mr. Cooper also coaxes notably warm and down-to-earth performances from often-abrasive comic Andrew Dice Clay as Ally's protective father, and sharp but skittish comedian Dave Chappelle as Jackson's friend and fellow musician. And "A Star Is Born" is a high-water mark for the Oscar-nominated actor himself; his Jackson Maine is a believable portrait of a man whose passions are constantly at war with his inner demons, and whose charm and narcissism are two sides of the same coin. There's always a fear that addiction stories will be overplayed but Mr. Cooper hits all the right notes here. It's easy to empathize with this seemingly-laid-back charmer who's so at home onstage, basking in the adulation of his roaring fans, but as the layers peel away to expose conflicts and insecurities just beneath the surface, it's agonizing to watch his struggles. That Mr. Cooper turns in such a finely-tuned performance while also shouldering directing and producing duties is a significant accomplishment.
There are some drawbacks here, including the lengthy runtime (135 minutes), which leads to a bit of trudging as the film makes its turn into the third act. And, while characters of Jackson and Ally are fully realized and virtually demand the audience's emotional attention, the story gets a bit soapy in the end. The strong setup points to a cathartic payoff that may not be there for all viewers, particularly those with low tolerance for telegraphed story beats. However, there's only so much one can do to put a new spin on a story that's been told so many times before, so this is a small quibble. In the end, "A Star Is Born" will be judged on the appeal of its love story, the strength of its performances, and the vaulting intensity of its musical numbers. The final verdict? There's no denying that this star was born to shine.