A Star Is Born review: Lady Gaga will break your heart but is it worth an Oscar?

The bar was already set very high. A Star Is Born has a long and award-laden history in Hollywood.

The 1937 Janet Gaynor original was nominated for seven Oscars (winning for Best Original Story), the 1954 Judy Garland had six nominatons and landed its leading lady a Golden Globe. Barbra Streisand’s 1976 version had six Oscar nominations and also won five Golden Globes, including Best Actress.

There is already heavy 2019 Awards Season buzz for the latest incarnation, with as much praise going to leading man Cooper in his directorial debut.

With original music by Gaga and Cooper and two towering central performances, this movie packs a pretty punch, but does it deliver all that we hoped?

The film follows the established path of an aspiring and talented young singer, Gaga’s Ally, who nobody believes in, least of all herself.

A chance meeting with the jaded and fading country superstar, Cooper’s Jackson Maine, propels her to stardom – but as one rises, another inexorably falls.

What has always set this tale apart is that it is not the predictable story of the powerful svengali mentor and opportunistic newcomer. Here, both bring out the best in each other, both find something they desperately need and thought they would never find – and both love equally, desperately and with matching passion.

The chemistry between Cooper and Gaga is palpable, powerful, exhilarating and almost painfully convincing. Cooper directs their early scenes with a great eye for their insecurities and hopes, longing and fears.

The scene where Maine fixates on Ally’s nose, the thing she feels has always held her back, and turns it into the focus of his desire and adoration, is both extraordinarily touching and erotic.

Their first scenes together on stage are electric. Gaga’s vocal majesty is well known but Cooper is far better than his frequent protestations to the contrary. His voice carries warmth and pain, country rain and blues thunder.

In fact, their vocals echo their performances. Gaga is guts and glory, showstopping and supreme, beautifully modulated. Cooper, for me, is the real treat. Less showy, less spectacular but quietly emotional, raw and imperfect. His pain is the heart of this film. It reminded me of La La Land where nothing Emma Stone did would have been possible without Ryan Gosling’s selfless artistry.

Maine’s alcoholic father drove him to attempt suicide at 13. Tinnitus is drowning out his hearing, stealing his talent as he seeks oblivion in pills and liquor, repeating the sins of the father. Suddenly Ally offers a shot at redemption, at love. For the first time he has a home. For the first time he has something to lose. 

As the tragedy plays out its unbearable heartache there is strong support from Sam Elliott as Maine’s much older brother, another one with broken dreams but less demons.

Lady Gaga has spoken of the liberation offered by stripping away her costumes and make-up to lay herself bare for this role, protected by Cooper’s sensitive and sure direction. Ironically, as Ally becomes famous she starts to echo early electropop Gaga. Maine looks on in pain as she starts to sell out.

He tells her performers only have a short time when people truly listen, so they must say something important, something real.

This film grapples with fame, family, integrity, love and sacrifice. It succeeed emphatically in conveying the overwhelming love its two central characters feel.

It falters slightly in facing the inevitable final act. Cooper, for the first time, shies away from the bloodied heart of this tale’s emotional truth. We are listening but I’m not sure he quite knows how to braek it to us. Perhaps it hurts too much.

The final scenes feel a little formulaic, a little too neat, a little mawkish. A shame after the raw power of so much that came before.

But you will still cry. The film has earned that and its place among its illustrious forbears.