I had good memories of the Streisand/Kristofferson A Star Is Born, and since my attitude toward Lady Gaga was somewhere between "appalled" and "disdainful," the lineup on the new film seemed unpromising, when it was first announced.
But over the past few years, my attitude has been evolving. It began with Lady Gaga's duet album with Tony Bennett. Who knew she could sing real songs? Well, me, now.
And then there was the appearance of Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga on the Graham Norton Show last week. It was one of the best Graham Nortons since I've been watching, because along with Gaga and Cooper, Ryan Gosling was there with a wonderful view of his Neil Armstrong movie, First Man; and Jodie Whittaker, the new (and first female) Dr. Who, was an absolute delight -- and not just because of her wonderful Yorkshire accent.
Here's what I learned from Cooper and Gaga on Norton:
1. Bradley Cooper heavily recruited Lady Gaga to play the female lead opposite him.
2. Bradley Cooper, as director, decided that all the singing would be recorded live, in the scene -- meaning that when you see them singing on stage, the sound you're hearing is the actual singing and playing that were happening during the scene. That's almost never done anymore.
3. Cooper and Gaga seemed to really like and care about each other, as friends and colleagues. That was not inevitable -- while Cooper is a powerful filmmaker, his level of fame as an actor isn't even in the same solar system with Lady Gaga's level of fame as a singer. Such disparities are not always conducive to warmth.
4. Lady Gaga was wearing her own face and actual human clothing through most of the movie, so that we had a possibility of seeing something genuine rather than the plastic persona she created during her rise to fame.
Then, this past Monday night, my wife and I came to the theater to watch A Star Is Born, starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, and we rejoiced at the beauty of this movie. My wife never saw the Streisand movie; I don't think she ever needs to see it, now that the story has been told this powerfully.
Not only are we hearing Bradley Cooper's actual singing voice (and he's very, very good), but also he actually plays those guitar riffs. Like Ryan Gosling on piano in La La Land, Cooper took intensive guitar lessons for a year and a half so he could do his own onstage playing in the movie.
(Speaking of which, you have to hear Gosling's account on the Graham Norton Show of taking flying lessons in order to play Neil Armstrong in First Man.)
But the bravest thing in this movie was Lady Gaga emerging from disguise to show the lovely young woman she's been hiding behind her Lady Gaga drag for all these years. Her singing is real; her acting is excellent; and she and Cooper have onscreen chemistry that really works.
If, like me, you were hoping to go through your whole life without ever seeing Lady Gaga naked, I must warn you. Unless you blink for the quarter-second that the shot lasts, you will have a full-frontal glimpse of her as a bathroom door is closing. Voyeurs will have to time the pause feature on their DVR or DVD player in order to study that moment; the rest of us can happily pretend it never happened.
Unlike every Barbra Streisand movie, this film is not devoted to loving Vaseline-filtered shots of the female star. Instead, the two leads get approximately equal time. And there are wonderful performances by supporting players like Dave Chappelle, Ron Rifkin, Michael D. Roberts, Michael Harney, Anthony Ramos, and, believe it or not, Andrew Dice Clay.
The supporting cast is led by Sam Elliott as Bradley Cooper's older brother; their relationship is an important subplot in the movie, and you end up loving this guy.
In fact, you end up caring about practically everybody, and above all, you want Cooper and Gaga to be happy together. It's all complicated by Cooper's addictions and by the manager who is shaping Gaga's new career. The ending is frustrating and sad, but Lady Gaga brings off a terrific final number that pulls it all together; and Cooper, whose direction is, in my opinion, flawless, put two clips at the end of the movie that give the audience closure.
I have not been a fan of Lady Gaga, but she's wonderful in this. I have enjoyed and admired Bradley Cooper, but never would have thought of him as a singer or musician, or as the actor who could pull off this star-turn performance.
This film was done right. It's worth leaving home to go see it in the theaters, and add your ticket dollars as part of the public applause for A Star Is Born.
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