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‘Star is Born’ too melodramatic for its own good

There is something elemental, archetypal, mythic even, about the story arc of “A Star Is Born.” That’s why Hollywood keeps coming back to it time and time again. A performer at the top of his game takes a newbie under his wing, and eventually that newbie surpasses him, climbing the ladder of stardom as he falls down it. Make them lovebirds, too, and you’ve got a guaranteed tragic romance.

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Four times has this tale been told, the most recent being the Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson version from the ’70s. And now, Bradley Cooper decides to make his directing debut with a fifth go-round, starring himself and another mega-star, Lady Gaga. Like the other versions, this “A Star is Born” is flashy, splashy, and a little bit trashy. Its soap opera elements are subsumed to some degree by the thrill of seeing two celebrities square off and, more importantly, by the power of the music.

Since Cooper plays a rock star, the inevitable question is “Can he sing?” And the answer is a resounding “Yes.”

And since this is Lady Gaga’s first starring role in a movie, the other inevitable question is, “Can she act?” And the answer is, “Absolutely.” Now, of course, she’s playing a budding singer, so it’s not that big a stretch. But she holds her own with the oft-Oscar-nominated Cooper. It’s also a little startling and refreshing to see the unadulterated Gaga, sans costume and make-up.

But the audiences are not going to flock to “A Star is Born” for the acting. It’s the music scenes that should draw them in. And conveniently, they’re the best scenes. One in a parking lot could become iconic. After meeting in a bar, Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) and Ally (Lady Gaga) wind up in an empty lot in the middle of the night. Ally makes up a lyric on the spot. But then, more improbably, she belts out another original.

Sure, it strains credulity but it’s all just setting up an emotional on-stage moment a short time later when Maine drags an unsuspecting Ally on stage with him to belt out — you guessed it — that very parking lot song, this time with a full band accompaniment, and even Jackson Maine.

Somehow these musical improbabilities are forgiven. They’re a well-honored convention of musical theatre, after all. But the rest of the movie is harder to swallow. Ally becomes too big a star way too fast, and Maine’s ultimate demise seems too convenient and/or contrived. It may guarantee an emotional wallop, but it feels unearned.

I don’t consider “A Star Is Born” a traditional musical, since the singing only takes place on stages, but like a musical, its high points are the songs.

The “book” of this near-musical is too melodramatic for its own good but the musical performances make “A Star is Born” worth watching, probably multiple times.

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