Lady Gaga has spent the past few years reinventing herself, with mixed results.
She played the jazz diva alongside Tony Bennett for their “Cheek to Cheek” duets record. She polarized viewers with her “Sound of Music” tribute at the Oscars. She struggled to emote, despite a Golden Globe win, as a vampire in TV’s “American Horror Story: Hotel.” And she donned a cowboy hat and went earnest for the “Joanne” album, a mix of honky-tonk and cabaret aesthetics.
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But as wide-eyed singer-songwriter Ally in the reboot of “A Star Is Born,” opening Friday, Gaga has finally, gloriously embraced the reinvention she needs.
Lady Gaga’s luminous turn in “A Star Is Born” is atop the list of folks doing surprisingly solid work in the film. Here’s a look at who else shows up onscreen.
Andrew Dice Clay: The controversial comedian is almost unrecognizable as Ally’s tenderhearted father, who fancies himself a Frank Sinatra of sorts.
Dave Chappelle: Another funny man, also playing it understated as a good friend to Cooper’s tortured superstar.
Shangela: The “RuPaul’s Drag Race” breakout and Texas native shines in every scene she appears. Love the glasses.
Willam Belli: Another “Drag Race” queen, she gets Jackson Maine to give her a memorable autograph.
Anthony Ramos: He took on dual roles in the Broadway smash “Hamilton” and shows up here as Ally’s BFF.
Eddie Griffin: Blink and you might miss him as a pastor.
Greg Grunberg: The J.J. Abrams favorite (“Felicity,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) who co-starred with Cooper on “Alias” pops up as Jackson Maine’s loyal driver.
Alec Baldwin: As himself, introducing Ally during a “Saturday Night Live” performance.
Halsey: As herself, with the pop star presenting a Grammy to Ally.
This is her first starring role, but Gaga seems made for the big screen. She’s natural and unforced, which has sometimes proved a difficult task for pop stars. She has plenty of support from a compelling story and co-star Bradley Cooper’s sensitive direction. But Gaga brings her own grace and light to her character.
This is the star Gaga was meant to be — the same woman who soared over the Super Bowl halftime show in Houston and who upstaged presidents and country singers during a Hurricane Harvey relief concert at Texas A&M University.
The well-trodden story of “A Star Is Born” is one of love and ambition. An embattled superstar, played by Cooper, crosses paths with Gaga’s struggling singer. As he loses his way in a haze of alcohol and drugs, she finds her voice. Despite, or because of, the circumstances, they fall in love.
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Previous versions have starred Janet Gaynor and Fredric March (1937), Judy Garland and James Mason (1954), Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson (1976). Potential updates featuring Whitney Houston and Beyoncé went nowhere. But it now seems unlikely they could have done what Gaga and Cooper do here.
Gaga and Cooper have an electric chemistry that moves from a dull glow to a roaring flame. They’re opposing sides of the same heart, a point Cooper plays up beautifully by letting the camera linger on their faces and hands.
Cooper’s Jackson Maine first sees Ally performing at a small drag bar occupied by “RuPaul’s Drag Race” faves Shangela and Willam. As Ally belts “La Vie en Rose,” Jackson looks beyond the glued-on eyebrows and garish extensions piled on her head. He truly sees her. And in that moment, as his face cracks into a weary smile, he’s found the music again.
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Bradley himself is a revelation. He’s dropped his voice to achieve a grizzled effect as a man resigned to, and trapped by, his stardom. Jackson is a mix of insecurity and cockiness, equally bewitched and bewildered by the woman he’s only just met. When they sing onstage together for the first time, it’s one of the movie’s most dynamic scenes — all discovery and dreams, fear and fascination.
The music, which was recorded live, is an earthy sort of pop-rock. Cooper settles in nicely. He has a natural, convincing ease onstage as a musician. And he effectively transmits a feeling of being trapped by stardom. Cooper is clearly nodding to Kristofferson’s earlier take on the character, but it’s more homage than anything else.
The songs also allow Gaga, unfettered by so much production, to finally breathe as a singer. It’s ironic, then, that success ultimately turns her character into a pop star in the vein of Katy Perry or, well, Lady Gaga.
Lucky for us, the real Gaga seems to be working in reverse.