Country singer walks into a drag bar.
That's not the setup to a joke – it's the opening scene of the entertaining new version of A Star Is Born, starring Bradley Cooper as a twangy musician, Jackson Maine, who's so hard up for a drink after a concert that he orders his limo driver to stop at the nearest watering hole.
Maine gets his glass (or five) of gin but he also ends up having a darn good time, listening to drag queens perform, signing a few autographs (one on a prosthetic breast), and eventually getting up onstage to perform a little bit himself (I don't care what he sings, says a smitten patron, as long as he sings it to me).
The scene is notable for introducing Jackson to love interest Ally (Lady Gaga) a moonlighting caterer who brings the house down with her spin on an Edith Piaf standard, but the sequence also tips us to what lurks in the margins of the famously tragic love story – a parable about the power of music to bring folks together.
Certainly music is the food of love shared between Jackson (Jack for short) and Ally, whose initial meeting turns into a till-dawn discussion, during which the celebrity listens sincerely to Ally's life story – how she came to be a singer, why she doesn't sing the songs that she writes (men have told her she doesn't have the looks to put the songs over).
She sings a few bars as the sun comes up. While the limo doesn't turn into a pumpkin, it does whisk Ally back to her old life, to her modest home (with her dad, also a limo driver, played affectingly by Andrew Dice Clay).
She doesn't expect another meeting, but of course there is one – a concert scene wherein she discovers that Jack has turned her smattering of notes and words into a full-on song.
This is a winning gesture of affection, but also of respect and admiration, and it defines the romance that drives the movie. You can see why Ally is moved, and you buy it. Jack believes in her. He asks her to join him onstage, and it's crucial that he doesn't push, or insist, and trap her. You can come onstage or not, he says, but I'm going to sing it anyway. And when she does join him onstage, he cedes it to her.
The scene may be Lady Gaga's best non-singing moment in the film – convincing us that she's the shy little thing who has to be persuaded to go onstage. Where, of course she kills it (singing "Shallow," one of the soundtrack's signature tunes).
It's worth noting here that the music in A Star Is Born, contributed by an impressive collection of producers and songwriters, is generally very good, and nimble — it crosses genre boundaries as Ally makes the transition from countryish singer to pop star. For the movie to work, the music has to be believable as a commercially viable entity, and for the most part it does.
The tunes, which we hear as Jack and Ally write and tour and perform, also define the jagged course of the Jack/Ally relationship, affected by his addiction to booze and pills (Dave Chappelle has a small but resonant role as Jack's friend, who shows him the sober road he's yet to take).
There is also turbulence created by Ally's move toward a separate career path – a hit-making producer (Rafi Gavron) takes her aside and tells her, gesturing toward Jack and his band, that she's bigger than "just this" — the trade-off between art and commerce is one of the movie's big themes.
Jack worries that Ally is going down the wrong road — crucially, this registers more as concern than jealousy. And Ally worries that Jack's addiction will kill him. He eventually seeks help, but not before a split with his brother/manager (Sam Elliott) and damage done to his relationship with Ally, who by now is on her way to the Grammys (a trajectory the movie rushes just a bit).
Cooper, who directs and cowrote, has transformed many aspects of the well-known story, and for the better. But iconic elements of the story remain, and he gives us an emphatic hint early on that the tragic A Star Is Born arc will remain intact. When the inevitable occurs, it feels soapy next to the rest of Cooper's smartly modernized update, and contributes to the sense that the movie's second half is its weakest. On the other hand, it sets up Lady Gaga's rafter-shaking closing number, suitable for an Oscar telecast.
Behind the movie's Big Moments, though, is something subtle, and interesting. You see that Cooper has taken the frayed ends of American culture and knitted them together — male and female, urban and rural, folksy and hip, rich and poor, finding common ground through music. You see songs move through different musical idioms, and you see the power that can have, as long as people are willing to listen.
A Star Is Born
Directed by Bradley Cooper. With Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, Andrew Dice Clay and Rafi Gavron. Distributed by Warner Bros.
Running time: 135 minutes
Parents' guide: R (language)
Playing at: Area theaters