“It’s the same story, told over and over — forever.” When Jackson Maine, the washed-up rock star played by Bradley Cooper, says that toward the end of the new “A Star Is Born,” you may be forgiven a bit of whiplash. He’s talking about music, the 12 notes in an octave that can be endlessly recombined to find something new. But he could be speaking for the film itself, the fourth (at least) version of a show-business fable that’s as unkillable as it’s oft-told.
And often very well told, including here. If the 1937 and 1954 versions of “A Star Is Born” remain strong and true, and the 1976 Barbra Streisand remake is an effective artifact of its era — and 1932’s “What Price Hollywood?” still stands as a sassy, edgy forerunner — the latest update, directed by Cooper and built on the sturdy bones of William Wellman’s and Robert Carson’s 1937 script, has heart, soul, and sinew.
Above all, it has Lady Gaga, both before and after her character’s transformation from an outer-borough duckling into a superstar swan. And it has Cooper both in front of the camera as a growling, insecure ruin of a celebrity and behind it with unexpected first-time assurance. The opening 45 minutes of “A Star Is Born” are as good as mainstream moviemaking gets in the 21st century, and the rest is only slightly less impressive for being so familiar. We’re perfectly willing to come to a story we’ve heard before as long as its emotions can be made convincingly fresh. That’s what happens here.
Which is to say that my heart stopped and yours may, too, when Lady Gaga’s Ally — a waitress and wannabe singer with a fair-sized nose and an outsized voice — turns to the camera in close-up while singing “La Vie en Rose” at a drag bar. She looks Jackson and us square in the eyes, and in those few seconds a movie star is born, and so is a director. One reason “A Star Is Born” has worked and still works is that it often casts an actress whose story — the rise, the talent, the chutzpah — echoes the character’s. As with Judy Garland and Streisand, so with Stefani Germanotta/Lady Gaga, who’s most appealing at her most down-to-earth. The role of Ally is so meta as to cast doubt on whether Lady Gaga can play other kinds of parts; the performance is so galvanizing that you don’t remotely care.
After Ally meets Jackson, who has wandered into the drag club in an alcoholic haze after headlining an arena show, the movie slows time for an intimate getting-to-know-you session that stretches into the wee hours and the parking lot of an all-night supermarket. The sequence is intensely charming because Cooper the director keeps the camera close and because Cooper the actor and Gaga the costar reveal layers of hurt, longing, insecurity, and ambition. Plus, they’re just hot together, which matters.
Jackson will soon spirit Ally on his private jet to his next gig, along with her best pal, Ramon (Anthony Ramos), and allow her to share the stage and sing “The Shallow,” her self-penned song that he has thoughtfully and in record time arranged for a full band. That she joins him in improvising complex but perfectly harmonized choruses on the spot is a nod to the absurd movie magic we crave in our origin myths. That the scene works, to hair-raising effect, is strictly due to the stars and the filmmaking, which includes Matthew Libatique’s pungent cinematography and the brilliantly choreographed editing of Jay Cassidy.
“A Star Is Born” shifts into a baggy and comfortably formulaic gear only when the romance is established and Ally begins her climb to the top. In a movie that occasionally bears down too heavily on visual forebodings (that billboard with the nooses) and timeworn plotting, we know we’ve found our villain with the arrival of Rex (Rafi Gavron), a young, stridently hip record producer. It is he who will make Ally over into a Top 40 pop tart, complete with backup dancers and orange hair; it is he who shows no sympathy as the sozzled Jackson gives in to his demons and begins the long slide down.
If there’s a flaw in this “Star,” it’s that it’s never clear what the movie thinks of Ally’s transformation. Jackson Maine is a little bit country, a little bit Skynyrd, a little bit Eddie Vedder, maybe some Neil Young on crunchy rawk guitar — he’s his own genre, really, but one that looks back to a shared rock past of many moviegoers. His signature song has a chorus that runs “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,” but you can tell he’s ambivalent.
Ally starts out belting her songs solo on a piano a la Carole King (whose “Tapestry” album cover is tacked to her bedroom wall), but she rapidly ascends to the style and success of an Adele, a Katy Perry, a Sia — or a Lady Gaga. We see that rise through the distrusting eyes of her new husband, but whether we’re meant to share his disapproval is left murky, perhaps for fear of pulling the rug out from under his costar and souring sales of the soundtrack album. “A Star Is Born” has an eye to more than one audience. It seems a little nervous they might cancel each other out.
Yet that sourness and uncertainty is there, given voice by the worried and supportive men surrounding Jackson, including a much older brother and tour manager, Bobby (invaluable Sam Elliott), and a childhood friend and bandmate played by Dave Chappelle, whose cameo shares some clear-eyed wisdom about the difficulties of fame. Ally just has the girls back at the drag bar, who, along with Ramon, largely disappear from the movie; that producer, who’s British (boo) and wears girly socks; and a lovable, egotistical mook of a father (Andrew Dice Clay). “A Star Is Born” lives mostly in Jackson’s world, from whence it peers anxiously out at Ally’s. For these and other reasons, it stands to be an enormous hit.
Yet the movie manages to have its Top 40 cake and middle-American apple pie, too, and every time Cooper circles back to the central relationship, it feels hushed and honest – a quality this “Star” shares with the 1937 and 1954 versions. Cooper the director nods to the latter with a gorgeously simple opening title sequence (it already feels like a poster) and finds a way to up the ante on Jackson’s humiliation during the awards-ceremony scene, a moment that outdoes every previous “Star” for sheer self-immolating awfulness.
To its credit, the movie never excuses Jackson as anything other than the author of his own misfortunes. But it does dig a little more deeply than before into the intense and ironic loss of self that can come with celebrity, especially in the age of 24-7 selfies and cellphones. Everyone but Jackson Maine knows who Jackson Maine is, and everyone wants a piece of him. “I’m sorry, but I had to,” says a supermarket cashier (Luenell) after snapping a discreet photo of him and Ally during that first evening together. “It’s all right,” mumbles Jackson. “No, it’s not,” snaps Ally.
That line suggests she has a lot to learn about being famous but also the strength to learn it, and the payoff comes nearly two hours later, with a climactic memorial performance of “I’ll Never Love Again” that will leave you a soggy mess whether you like it or not. “A Star Is Born” pushes the reset button on one of our most primal bedtime stories, the fairy-tale of arrival and the fall that accompanies it, as if there’s always only room for one. It offers no insight whatsoever on the things a star has to do to endure. For that, I guess, there’s “Sunset Blvd.”
A STAR IS BORN
Directed by Bradley Cooper. Written by Cooper, Eric Roth, and Will Fetters, based on a story by William Wellman and Robert Carson. Starring Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper. At Boston theaters, Coolidge Corner, West Newton, suburbs. 135 minutes. R (language throughout, some sexuality/nudity, substance abuse).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.