Some movies simply shouldn’t work.

Take, for example, this fourth telling of an iconic love story, made by an actor who’s directing for the very first time and starring a singer/songwriter who’s never carried a film before.

And yet, with the 2018 version of A Star Is Born, Bradley Cooper has done the unthinkable, taking a well-worn tale and infusing it with new life. In the process, the popular actor has created one of the year’s most emotionally engaging films, a mature work that remains nearly perfect for its first hour, charting the beauty and heartbreak of a passionate romance, as two souls merge, on stage and in life.

If this were simply the four-time Oscar nominee’s first time behind the camera, it would stand as a remarkable debut, but the popular actor (nominated for his work in American Sniper, American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook) has also co-written the film, successfully modernizing George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood?, a 1932 drama that’s been updated and remade under the title A Star Is Born in 1937, 1954, 1976 and now, in 2018. On top of that, the 43-year-old cast himself in a leading role, playing seasoned country musician Jackson “Jack” Maine. Backed by guitarist Lukas Nelson (29-year-old son of country legend Willie Nelson) and his band, Promise of the Real, Cooper displays some unexpectedly strong musical chops. His talent is apparent from the film’s opening scene, which shows him expertly serenading a crowd of thousands as he croons “Black Eyes,” one of the movie’s many original songs that he crafted with a handful of artists, including Nelson, Jason Isbell, Mark Ronson and—most notably—Lady Gaga.

The multiple Grammy-winning singer already has an Oscar nomination under her belt for “Till It Happens to You,” an original song she wrote and performed for Kirby Dick’s 2015 documentary, The Hunting Ground, but Gaga might win this time around—and not simply for her music. The pop superstar, who won a Golden Globe for her turn in FX’s American Horror Story, demonstrates a natural talent for acting. Shedding the makeup, wigs and costumes that were once an integral part of her oversized Gaga persona, the 32-year-old fully inhabits the character of Ally, a struggling artist and introvert who’s discovered performing at a drag bar by Jack, an alcoholic who’s desperately in search of a drink after his latest gig. If it weren’t for the amazing pipes she puts to great use once she finally takes the stage with Cooper during the film’s showstopping duet, “Shallow,” you’d be forgiven if you briefly forget Gaga altogether.

One of Cooper’s numerous homages to the earlier films finds Gaga’s Ally playfully placing one of her false eyebrows on Jack’s brow, mirroring a scene from the 1976 version when Barbra Streisand applied makeup on Kris Kristofferson. But while Cooper and co-screenwriters Will Fetters and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) retain many sweet moments such as this, their story remains a tragedy. As such, Cooper’s iteration retains the buildup to the Grammy Awards meltdown from the ’76 film, but since it’s 2018, characters now swear like sailors while cellphones instantly capture and upload star-making performances to YouTube.

Another notable change finds Jack receiving the extensive backstory that has usually been reserved for the female lead, making him the most fleshed-out character of A Star Is Born’s four iterations, to the point that the film is less Ally’s than Jack’s. Even though we witness some of the home life she shares with her father, who’s unexpectedly played with surprising shadings of gentleness and paternal affection by Andrew Dice Clay, the audience never learns Ally’s last name. Still, Cooper has modernized the character’s identity as a pop star who’s not too far removed from the Gaga persona—including with what we can only hope are intentionally bad songs with lyrics like, “Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?”

Sam Elliot, an under-appreciated actor who does some of his finest work in a small but integral role as Cooper’s loving but resentful older brother Bobby, explains to Ally that, “Music is essentially 12 notes between any octave. Twelve notes, and the octave repeats. It’s the same story, told over and over. All any artist can offer the world is how they see those 12 notes.”

That may be spelling out Cooper’s approach a little too bluntly, but it’s nevertheless what’s kept the story compelling since the ’30s. And since we seem destined to get one of these films every few generations, our grandchildren’s grandchildren should be guaranteed to be watching some version of this tale well into the future. But for now, we have Cooper’s Oscar-winner-in-waiting to entertain us through our tears. 

A Star Is Born ★★★ 1/2

Starring Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Anthony Ramos, Rafi Gavron, Dave Chappelle, Barry Shabaka Henley, Michael D. Roberts, Greg Grunberg, Michael J. Harney, Rebecca Field and Alec Baldwin. Written by Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper and Will Fetters, based on a story by William Wellman and Robert Carson, and screenplays by Moss Hart, John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion and Frank Pierson. Directed by Bradley Cooper. 

(At Assembly RowBoston Common, Coolidge CornerFenway, Seaport, SomervilleSouth Bay and in the suburbs.)

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