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It’s movie magic at its most beautiful when Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga share the screen in A Star Is Born. It’s a rousing remake of the old rise-to-fame story, and it’s easily the best movie with that title ever made. It is the fourth—yet this film feels amazingly original.

Cooper makes his directorial debut and stars as Jackson Maine, a Southern rocker barely getting through his gigs thanks to too much alcohol, too many pills and a nasty case of tinnitus. The film opens with Cooper live on stage belting out “Black Eyes,” a song that shows this movie means business on the musical front: Yes, that’s him singing and playing a pretty mean guitar. He brings a legitimate musical soul to the role.

And he’d damned well better, because his counterpart is played by none other than Lady Gaga in her fierce feature-lead debut. As Ally, a waitress who sings occasionally at the local drag bar, Gaga exceeds expectations so much that it seems impossible. She’s so good that it hurts, especially in the film’s heavy dramatic moments, of which there are many.

After his opening concert performance (filmed at Coachella in 2017), Jackson heads to Ally’s drag bar and, through an alcohol haze, witnesses her stirring version of “La Vie En Rose.” He’s instantly convinced he’s witnessing a diamond in the rough and implores her to join him on the road. She makes an impromptu appearance onstage with him performing “Shallow,” a song they wrote in a grocery-store parking lot together. She’s an instant smash, and the journey to fame and fortune has begun for Ally.

As this oft-told story goes, when one star rises, the other falls, and Cooper (who co-wrote the screenplay) stays faithful to that theme. While past incarnations have been a bit shmaltzy (Barbra Streisand’s 1970s take was pretty goofy), this take is gritty, intelligent, heartfelt and at times emotionally overwhelming. Gaga cries a bit in this movie, and you probably will, too.

Speaking of the Streisand version, Cooper’s film makes many obvious nods to it, including Jackson’s Kris Kristofferson look, an examination of Gaga’s big beautiful nose (just like Streisand’s) and even a moment including fake eyebrows. (There are prominent eyebrow-centric scenes in all of the versions.) Cooper acknowledges the prior films without stealing from them; fans of each version will appreciate what they see here.

Gaga reportedly campaigned for the music to be performed live, and this is a huge blessing, because nobody sings live like Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. What she does with “Shallow” and the film’s closing number, “I’ll Never Love Again,” is the stuff of movie legend. While this sort of musical magic is more or less expected from Gaga, to have Cooper successfully trading musical punches with one of the best singers on the planet is some sort of musical miracle.

Ally’s rise-to-fame story becomes a little predictable when her pop career takes off, but not enough to hurt the movie or diminish the film’s instant-classic status. The songs, many of them crafted by Gaga and Cooper together, are the real deal.

It was a lot of fun following this film’s production and reading about what inspired Cooper to make the movie and cast Gaga. It’s rare that a film lives up to the hype like this one has. Gaga is now a front-runner for an acting Oscar; Cooper finds himself in the running for directing; and “Shallow” seems predestined for a win as Best Original Song.

See this one knowing that the goosebumps will rise; the smiles will stretch your face muscles; and the tears will flow. A Star is Born is one of the year’s best movies, and Cooper and Gaga are one of the all-time-great screen pairings.

A Star Is Born is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real may be the luckiest band in America.

Make no mistake: The band, helmed by a son of Willie Nelson, has made a name for itself, in part, by playing excellent modern country music. However, the band has been blessed to back Neil Young (even during his performances at Desert Trip last year), and recently filmed scenes as Bradley Cooper’s backing band in the upcoming remake of A Star Is Born.

Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real will be performing at Pappy and Harriet’s on Saturday, Sept. 30.

During a recent phone interview, I learned right away that Lukas Nelson prefers to let the music do the talking: It wound up being one of the toughest and least-insightful interviews I’ve ever done. His bus had just arrived at a tour stop, and he seemed irritated; everything I asked him about was “great,” or he didn’t want to answer the question.

On the subject of participating in the remake of A Star Is Born, he sounded somewhat excited.

“It was great. I loved the experience of it and would do it again,” Nelson said. “I think Bradley did a great job, and so did Lady Gaga.”

Nelson hesitated when I asked him what it was like working with Lady Gaga.

“It was great. She’s a good friend; she’s a beautiful musician; and she’s a nice person,” he said.

Neil Young is like family to the young Nelson, so it makes sense to have Promise of the Real backing him.

“It’s been great, and it’s been a wonderful experience. He’s a great mentor, and I can’t say enough amazing things about it, to tell you the truth,” Nelson said.

I asked Nelson if this could be one of the greatest times to be a country musician, considering the budding underground country scene and the big mainstream scene. He responded, simply: “Sure, you could say that,” so I asked him what songwriters he currently likes in country music.

“Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Margo Price, Nikki Lane and Nicki Bluhm. There a lot of good ones out there,” he responded.

I asked Nelson where he finds himself within country music. That proved to be a mistake.

“That’s a question I don’t want to answer or really care about,” he replied. “If you don’t mind me saying, that’s a question for writers and not for musicians. I’m not looking to where I fit in anywhere. I’m just playing music.”

It was more of the same when I asked him about his band’s just-released, self-titled album: “A lot of great music on there,” he said.

When I asked him what his favorite studio is to record in, he mentioned three places in Austin, as if I were asking for suggestions on places to personally record.

Finally, I asked him about Pappy and Harriet’s. For once, he didn’t use the word “great.”

“I love the vibe there. I like it out in Joshua Tree, and it’s beautiful out in that area,” he said. “I really like the feeling there.”

Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real will perform at 8 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 30, at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Road, in Pioneertown. Tickets are $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-365-5956, or visit www.pappyandharriets.com.

Published in Previews

On Day 2 of Stagecoach 2017, two music legends celebrated their birthdays.

In recent years, Goldenvoice has booked some psychedelic rock bands with 1960s heydays to play the festival. On Friday, the Zombies played to a large crowd in the Palomino Tent; on Saturday, it was Tommy James and the Shondells.

When Tommy James and the Shondells took the stage, they started with their 1971 hit “Draggin’ the Line.” I immediately noticed was how tight the band sounded—and how well James can still sing and play his guitar; it appears he’s taken care of himself over the years. James told the audience that in their time slot, they couldn’t perform their standard repertoire, but he promised everyone a good time with as many songs as possible. The band then launched into “Crystal Blue Persuasion.”

At one point, the band endured some technical difficulties that went on for a few minutes. James told the crowd, “What can I do for the next five minutes?” before telling a joke that intentionally fell flat. It appeared they couldn’t get an acoustic guitar that James intended to use for a song to work. In the midst of this, the man who introduced the band came back out and informed the crowd that it was James’ birthday, and asked the crowd to sing “Happy Birthday.” James was turning 69.

Eventually, they gave up on the guitar and started playing “Crimson and Clover.”

If you grew up during the 1980s, you probably heard Tiffany’s awful cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” at every roller-skating rink, school dance and shopping mall in America. Well, hearing the rock version played live by the band that originally performed it makes you forget all about that horrible cover.

During the last song, “Mony, Mony,” James hopped into the photo pit below the stage and walked the entire line, shaking hands, kissing ladies on the cheek, and posing for some selfies as the band repeated a portion of the song. James then hopped back up onstage and finished the song and the set.

The Palomino Tent was already swelling toward capacity when Jamey Johnson took the stage and opened with “High Cost of Living.” Johnson announced during his set that it was Willie Nelson’s birthday, and led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday.”

Before Willie Nelson—84 as of April 29—performed, Bradley Cooper appeared onstage and informed the crowd that they had seven minutes of time to film a scene for the upcoming movie A Star Is Born, which will star Lady Gaga, and that Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real were going to come out and pretend to play a song that couldn’t actually be played “due to legal issues.” (Lukas is one of Willie’s sons.) He asked the crowd to show enthusiasm and excitement.

Willie Nelson finally took the stage after 8 p.m., well beyond his 7:45 p.m. scheduled start—and the crowd was massive; people were appropriately wondering why Nelson wasn’t appearing on the Mane Stage. The audience quickly learned Willie Nelson didn’t have his full band with him; instead, Lukas backed him with a couple of other musicians.

As was the case with Jerry Lee Lewis’ performance on Friday, the sound was hard to hear at times, especially when the crowd sang along to songs such as “Whiskey River,” “Still Is Still Moving To Me,” and “Good Hearted Woman.”

The end of Nelson’s set had a surprise: Neil Young came out and sang “Happy Birthday,” after Nelson had asked the crowd to sing “Happy Birthday” along with him. It seemed sort of odd to have Willie asking the audience to sing to him for his own birthday … but, hey, when you’re the Redheaded Stranger, and it’s your 84th birthday, you can do whatever the hell you want.

Other highlights

• John Doe of the punk band X performed in the early afternoon in the Palomino Tent to some of the edgier—and older—members of the Stagecoach crowd. DJ Bonebrake, the drummer of X, played as part of his band. Things got political for a couple of moments when John Doe told the audience that if they’re eating fruit, it was picked by someone else’s hand—and to try to think about that. While tuning, he told the audience that California was in a drought, and added, “There might be 10 feet of snow on Mammoth Mountain, but it’s still happening.” This enraged a man, wearing a cowboy hat, near me, who screamed: “CLIMATE CHANGE IS A HOAX!”

• Robert Ellis played an afternoon set in the Mustang Tent while decked out in an awesome colorful suit—with planets and other extra-terrestrial objects on it. It was definitely the best outfit I’ve seen at Stagecoach this year so far.