DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new film "A Star Is Born" opens this weekend. It was directed by and stars Bradley Cooper and gives Lady Gaga her first leading film role as a hopeful singer-songwriter. This is the fourth version of "A Star Is Born." The original, made in 1937, was directed by William Wellman and starred Fredric March as a fading alcoholic movie star and Janet Gaynor as the aspiring actress he falls in love with who becomes a sensation. In 1954, it was remade as a musical with Judy Garland and James Mason. The 1976 version paired Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Film critic David Edelstein has a review of the new "A Star Is Born."
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The first thing you'll notice in Bradley Cooper's crowd-pleasing remake of "A Star Is Born" is that Lady Gaga, the artist who rode to fame with avant-garde stunts and a firm refusal to do anything natural - anything that didn't smack of artifice - is down-to-earth and completely winning. You come to see a star and discover a human being become a star. Gaga's character Ally works in a hotel and performs on occasion at a drag bar, which is where she's discovered by country-western superstar Jackson Maine, played by Cooper. He's not there for the floor show. He fled his limo after finishing a bottle of vodka and staggered into the first watering hole. Then Ally saunters onto the stage, transforms "La Vie En Rose" into the sultriest the ballads and ends up writhing under Jackson's nose on top of the bar. Of the four versions of "A Star Is Born," this one has the cutest meet. And subsequent scenes when Ally and Jackson talk all night are even more charming.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A STAR IS BORN")
BRADLEY COOPER: (As Jackson Maine) Can I ask you a personal question? Do you write songs or anything?
LADY GAGA: (As Ally) I don't sing my own songs.
COOPER: (As Jackson Maine) Why?
LADY GAGA: (As Ally) I just - I just don't feel comfortable.
COOPER: (As Jackson Maine) Why wouldn't you feel comfortable?
LADY GAGA: (As Ally) Well, because, like, almost every single person that I've come in contact with in the music industry has told me that my nose is too big and that I won't make it.
COOPER: (As Jackson Maine) Your nose is beautiful. Are you showing me your nose right now?
LADY GAGA: (As Ally) Yeah.
COOPER: (As Jackson Maine) You don't have to show it to me. I've been looking at it all night.
LADY GAGA: (As Ally) Oh, come on. No, you're not.
COOPER: (As Jackson Maine) Oh, I'm going to be thinking about your nose for a very long time.
LADY GAGA: (As Ally) You're full of [expletive].
COOPER: (As Jackson Maine) I'm telling the truth. Can I touch your nose?
LADY GAGA: (As Ally) Oh, my gosh.
COOPER: (As Jackson Maine) Let me just touch it for a second.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Good lord, I feel like I'm dying.
COOPER: (As Jackson Maine) You're very lucky.
LADY GAGA: (As Ally) Oh, really?
COOPER: (As Jackson Maine) Uh-huh.
LADY GAGA: (As Ally) Yeah, not really. My nose has not made me lucky.
EDELSTEIN: Jackson loves her nose and her music, which is why he memorizes a song of hers he heard only once, plays it before a sold-out stadium crowd and calls for Ally to join him onstage, which she does reluctantly. It's one of those scenes in which the musicians don't know the song, but as they play along, they get it - hey, this is good - while Ally melts the hearts of everyone on earth. Yes, the performance goes viral. Even if you normally roll your eyes at stuff like this, it's hard to resist. The camera is handheld and mostly at eye line with the characters - breathlessly worshipful, then intimate, then worshipful.
There's a reason that "A Star Is Born" has been made four times. It's a Cinderella story in which the prince validates everything good about an impoverished young woman. He makes her a princess and then garishly self-destructs before her horrified eyes - a rescue fantasy and a masochistic wallow in one neat package. I can't imagine how the first half of this "A Star Is Born" could be much better. It's so good, it will carry people through the second half, which has great scenes but the usual mushy arc. Cooper and his co-screenwriters haven't rethought the material for 2018, an age in which celebrity apparatus involves making stars and their personal lives seem closer to us via Twitter and Instagram. When a reptilian Brit becomes Ally's manager and steers her towards bland dance pop, you can't tell what Ally thinks about the song she's doing.
And there's no point where Lady Gaga breaks through and shows the subversiveness that made her a star. Yeah, she's playing a character. But why cast her and then keep her straight-jacketed? She all but drops out of the picture while Jackson hits bottom after bottom. Cooper's performance grips you though - even behind a full beard, long hair and a squint. It took me a few seconds to place his basso purr. Then I thought, of course, it's Sam Elliott. Then Elliott showed up as Jackson's much older brother and long-suffering caretaker. And it's a trip hearing them growl at each other in the same voice.
The most shocking scene in all versions of "A Star Is Born" takes place at an awards ceremony - the Oscars or Grammys - in this case, the Grammys. This one tops them all in the humiliation department. It's excruciating. Towards the end of the movie, I heard sniffles and noses being blown all over the theater. Man, this material is shameless. And, man, does it work. Whatever its lapses, "A Star Is Born" will be a monster hit. Audiences will love Cooper for his tender suffering on screen and for showing us the soul that was always there beneath Lady Gaga's outrageous costumes. They'll want to see Gaga at the Oscars as much as fans in the movie want to see Ally at the Grammys.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. On Monday's show - when Leonard Cohen died in 2016, he left behind many unpublished poems and lyrics, some of which have been collected in a new book. We talk with Cohen's son Adam Cohen who wrote the introduction. Adam also produced "You Want It Darker," the album his father recorded shortly before his death. I hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHASIN' KENDALL'S "STEFON HARRIS & BLACKOUT")
BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with assistance from Adam Staniszewski and additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHASIN' KENDALL'S "STEFON HARRIS & BLACKOUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.