Every generation needs its Star, and the latest version — starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga — is a worthwhile addition to the series.
Star was born in 1937 when William Wellman directed the melodramatic Janet Gaynor and the subtle, heartbreaking Fredric March in the eternal story of celebrities at opposite ends of their careers. Inspired by an even older movie (George Cukor's What Price Hollywood? from 1932), the first Star follows the rise of a small-town girl and the drunken decline of a movie legend. Though the veteran gives the newbie her big break and subsequently falls in love with her (and she with him), he's unable to save his own career.
The 1954 remake, directed by Cukor, turned the tale into one of the best musicals of the decade, featuring a tender, pitch-perfect performance by James Mason and an absolutely stunning turn by Judy Garland in a mid-career comeback. Failing to replicate the magic of that movie, Frank Pierson directed a musically memorable but cloying Barbra Streisand and a walking-dead Kris Kristofferson in 1976. (A star is bored.) That version moved the plot from movies to rock 'n' roll, though neither Kristofferson nor Streisand were noted for their rock. The latest incarnation, which marks the directorial debut of Cooper, sticks with that musical setting but adds both a slight twang and a Gaga glint.
With a screenplay by Cooper, Eric Roth and Will Fetters (based on the 1937 story by Wellman and Robert Carson), this Star can boast a few surprises — some good, some mediocre. But it still borrows heavily from all three previous versions. If you haven't seen those films, count yourself lucky, as this updated tale of waxing and waning stars will seem mostly fresh. If you are familiar with the older movies, however, your attention might wander in the second act, with no big surprises waiting for you at the end. But you should still be impressed by the undeniable chemistry between Cooper and Gaga, plus the welcome addition of the incomparable Sam Elliott as the (much) older brother and mentor to Cooper's character.
As expected, Gaga nails her musical numbers, but she also shows a vulnerability that might catch some fans off guard. (She's no Garland, but neither was Streisand.) Cooper is even more impressive, especially because he's pulling triple duty thanks to his behind-the-camera credits. (His performance owes a lot to Kristofferson's grizzled rocker from the 1976 version, except Cooper is actually good.) And look for accomplished supporting appearances by Andrew Dice Clay and Dave Chappelle.
"Is there something else you're searching for?" Gaga's character asks herself in song near the film's beginning, hinting at the fame that will soon be hers.
Her character's answer is, of course, yes, for that's the answer of all rising stars, whether they be 1930s Hollywood starlets or 21st century pop princesses. The dream never really changes, but in Cooper's new film, it's nevertheless nice to see it reimagined.
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