Every song is the same 12 notes, a character says in this newest version of “A Star is Born,” what matters is what you say with them.
It’s a notion that applies to most movies as well — you pretty much know what you’re getting at the multiplex more often than not, at least in terms of plot, so it’s incumbent on the talent involved to offer something different and meaningful between the lines.
That’s the standard achieved by Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in this fourth cinematic telling of this story.
Making his directorial debut, Cooper infuses the movie with an appealingly understated, naturalistic quality that defies the standards typically set by this sort of epic romance. Even the clichés don’t feel like clichés because they’re rendered with such careful attention to emotional truths.
In front of the camera, he and Gaga create characters that are worthy of the investment expected of them, fully-realized individuals who are transformed by their romance but never defined by it.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the concert scenes are among the most immersive in memory, or that the original songs like “Shallow” and “Maybe It’s Time” are genuinely powerful in their own right.
The movie begins with a whirlwind, virtuoso sequence that instantly highlights Cooper’s directorial bonafides. It establishes the parameters of an entire cinematic universe with seemingly effortless grace.
It commences when Cooper’s Jackson Maine, an alcoholic country rocker who looks like Eddie Vedder and speaks like Sam Elliot (who co-stars as his brother), plays a packed show in front of screaming fans and stumbles offstage and into his waiting SUV. He’s driven to a random bar, seeking to disappear into the bottom of another drink.
There, he happens upon Gaga’s Ally — a restaurant worker who we have just seen being yelled at to take out the trash, and who has put her musical stardom dreams on ice. He watches, transfixed, as she performs Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.”
A meeting backstage commences a magical night that ends in a supermarket parking lot, where she sings a few verses of one of her original songs for him and you feel every bit of the intensity of the moment, where a faded man suddenly finds a reason to hope for the future and a despairing woman is finally heard.
The rest of the movie will occupy a lot of narrative territory, occasionally seeming like it’s zooming through key moments in Ally’s rise to superstardom and Jack’s subsequent struggle with his illness. Sometimes it hits dramatic beats that seem to have been forced by a screenplay (which Cooper co-wrote with Eric Roth and Will Fetters) that’s in too much of a rush.
But “A Star is Born” never sacrifices the conviction of its earliest moments, which so smartly connect these characters as artists and humans while also upholding the sanctity of their individual journeys.
Cooper and Gaga are so charismatic, so steadfast in their stripped-down presentation of complicated individuals who experience the same joys and heartbreaks as the rest of us, even under the bright glaring lights of extreme fame with all of its familiar burdens, that the movie cuts through the formula to achieve something close to authenticity.