In “A Star Is Born,” Bradley Cooper pours everything he’s got into writing, directing, acting and drinking as country star Jackson Maine. The boozing makes his touring lifestyle woozy, and the camera wavers with him down the road.
After a show one night, gin dripping from his lips, Jackson settles into his chauffeured SUV for a long ride home. He asks his driver to stop at a bar, any bar. As he trips into the first one they see, a man tells him, “I don’t know if this is your kind of place.” Jackson replies, “They got alcohol?”
They do, and to the strains of “La Vie en Rose,” Ally (Lady Gaga) emerges from behind the curtain. She has black tint in her hair and electrical tape eyebrows — her voice is magnificent. Jackson looks past the paint and tinsel and asks her out for another drink. They have an extensive conversation about the pleasures of big noses and songwriting — the intimacy of their bond is immediate and convincing.
The improvised ditty they compose in a grocery store parking lot makes its way into Jackson’s setlist for his next show and he pulls Ally onstage — “I’m going to sing it either way.” His swagger is soon matched by Ally’s as they belt out “Shallow,” a song that cinches an Oscar the moment Lady Gaga’s quaver enters the chorus.
When Ally hooks up with him, Jackson is already a classic. He wears a beard like real country alcoholics Steve Earle or Merle Haggard (and also like fictional real country alcoholics Kris Kristofferson from the 1976 version of “A Star Is Born” and Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart”). But the character works because Bradley Cooper puts everything into the performance — he is brilliant in halting his drunken stumble only at the moment he hears a drumbeat.
Jackson’s older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott) asks Ally rhetorically, “You think maybe he drinks a bit much?” The actors have a true brotherly dynamic, best seen when Bobby accuses Jackson of stealing his voice — one of the many impressive things Cooper does is sound uncannily like Sam Elliott.
The film is full of unusual casting choices made to great effect: Ally’s dad is Andrew Dice Clay, perfect as a car service owner who could’ve been the next Sinatra, Dave Chappelle plays Jackson’s melancholic old friend in Memphis, and even the great New Zealand singer/songwriter Marlon Williams appears as himself to cover Roy Orbison.
It’s also fascinating to see Lady Gaga’s shift from a raw, barely made-up amateur performer to a pop star that resembles her real-life glamorousness. Ally finds a manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) who trades her cowgirl chic with Jackson to glittery hot pants for a solo career. Conflicts crop up between “serious” country music and “disposable” pop, between one partner who suddenly eclipses the other.
In any relationship, you might have everything you ever wanted: the fame and the house and the goldendoodle and maybe you’re even both sober — at least for today — but all that can never match the night you spent trading lyrics outside the Super A Foods, trying each other on for size.
“A Star Is Born” goes for the big moment over and over and always gets to it. The songs are momentous and memorable. Jackson’s signature ballad “Maybe It’s Time” — written by the best recovering alcoholic songwriter we’ve got, Jason Isbell — is a perfect through-line for the film. It starts, “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” The bitter truth is that the person often dies before the old ways.
‘A Star Is Born’ is showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated R. Running time 2:15. Visit www.cinemawest.com.