Worldwide fame is a byproduct of the modern media age, with its ever-faster and seemingly instant ability to make anyone a success by having what’s deemed as the right look, regardless of talent. The pop singer Lady Gaga has been at the center of it all for the past decade, since the release of her debut CD “The Fame” threw her into the spotlight and led to her becoming the first woman ever to have her first four albums hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
But fame is a fickle beast, a status that can fade at any given moment. And within that harsh reality lies a world of potential compromises, as nearly any star has to decide what they will or won’t do in order to stay on top. In fact, a year after her debut, Gaga released the follow-up CD “The Fame Monster,” which goes to show that renown is something that easily falls under the saying “Be careful what you wish for.”
Now Gaga — whose real name is Stefani Germanotta — is stepping up to take her turn as a movie star in “A Star Is Born” opposite Bradley Cooper, who also co-wrote and directed the film. Playing a struggling waitress named Ally whose dreams of becoming a singer are given flight by a chance meeting with a fading rock superstar named Jackson Mane (Cooper), leading to a tumultuous romance between the two, she is likely to win this year’s Best Actress Oscar thanks to an utterly volcanic performance.
The film opens on Jackson popping a pill before kicking off a concert in front of thousands of screaming fans. The moment he’s offstage again, Jackson is guzzling booze, smoking joints and practically coughing up a lung while riding in his limo. Instead of a long drive to his lonely home, he asks his driver to let him out in the middle of the city he’s in and winds up staggering into a drag queen bar.
Amid all the queens performing, Ally is the one real woman to take the stage, using the venue as a place to belt out classics like “La Vie en Rose” since she lacks the confidence to compete in the real rock and pop world. Her electric performance of the French cabaret classic mesmerizes Jackson and, after a night of intimate conversation in which he shares his lonely sadness and she sings him a song she’s afraid to share with the world, he insists on flying her to his next tour stop and having her belt out her tune in front of his crowd.
The rapturous response she receives from the fans makes her instantly blossom into the confident star she deserves to be, and the two begin a tempestuous romance. Soon a manager helps her achieve her own stardom, leading to conflicts in her relationship with Jackson as well as with herself and staying true to the soulful artist she truly wishes to be.
“Star” marks the first time Cooper has stepped behind the camera as a writer and director, and it’s clearly a passion project for him that is rooted in the massive fame he’s acquired through the “Hangover” trilogy and the worldwide smash “American Sniper.” He has no doubt seen the toll that too much money and not enough life structure can take on a celebrity, and he imbues Jackson with a beautifully portrayed and deeply painful humanity as the singer is mired in a seemingly hopeless battle with alcoholism and drug addiction.
Cooper’s performance swings between the cocky star on the surface and the wounded soul within, hiding a tragic childhood and engaging in brotherly battle with his older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott, also a likely Oscar nominee). He’s sliding down while Ally is shooting up in stardom, a powerful contrast that Cooper never fails to root in heartfelt everyday emotion by use of well-deployed extreme close-ups that offer a window into their characters’ souls.
This is the fourth time that “A Star Is Born” has been made by Hollywood, following prior versions starring Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand that were all considered classics. The TMZ-driven world that stars are forced to contend with now makes this a stronger story than ever, and the modern-day freedoms of being an R rated film enable it to add the power of realism to its storytelling.
Filled with terrific tunes, magnetic performances and rooted in a heartfelt script that truly makes viewers care about what its leads are going through, “A Star Is Born” should be a major Oscar contender across the board. It’s well worth seeing and marks Gaga and Cooper as two people who have the talent to overcome fame and endure for the long haul.
“A Star Is Born” Grade: A