It would be hard to imagine a tougher task laid at Bradley Cooper’s feet: Remake a film that’s been remade three times, make an 81-year-old story contemporary, and use multiple non-actors. Oh, and make it your directorial debut. Yet Cooper managed that and more with this fourth rendition of A Star Is Born, a terrific film that not only kicks off the start of the Oscar season’s final quarter but may have set the bar for it.

First, two tips if you plan to see this movie, which you should. First, choose a theater with the best sound system in your area, make sure it has a projector with a short throw. Second, don’t be late. Otherwise, you may miss the most mesmerizing opening to a movie in years: A drunken, doped-out rocker about to rip into a guitar solo before a frenzied stadium crowd. In a theater with a good sound system, it feels more like you’re in the concert than watching it.

The scene underscores the strength and realism of A Star Is Born, the well-worn love story of two musicians whose trajectories could not be more opposite.

Cooper, who directed, produced, co-wrote and even composed some of the music, plays Jackson Maine, a singer-songwriter whose love of intoxicants has eclipsed his love of music. He crosses paths with unknown talent Ally (a sublime Lady Gaga) who doesn’t share Jack’s grim worldview. He’s drawn to her innocence and prodigious talent, she to his conflicted heart and troubled brilliance.

Given Hollywood’s spotty track record with remakes, Star could have easily come off the rails. But like Ben Affleck (another actor who made an impressive directorial debut with Gone Baby Gone), Cooper has clearly paid attention to the skilled directors who helmed his earlier films, such as David O. Russell (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook) and Clint Eastwood (American Sniper). Like those filmmakers, Cooper opts for story over spectacle.

Cooper even abandons the meet-cute cliche of so many star-crossed romances. After a festival concert, Jack bumps into Ally, who performs in a dingy drag bar. Cooper and Gaga have palpable chemistry; Gaga, in particular, demonstrates an inhibition you’d never expect from a real pop star. But their attraction is authentic: snarky, sarcastic, sexy, sincere and ultimately inescapable. Jack  invites Ally to a concert and drags her on stage to sing her song, “Shallow.” When someone films the recording and creates a viral video, Ally’s career begins a meteoric ascent. The first hour of Star imagines the first year of stardom: jet-set living, photo shoots, celebrity run-ins, adoring fans.

But what makes Star sing is that the movie is perpetually surprising us. This is a musical for audiences who don’t care for musicals, a funny romance for those averse to love stories. Particularly effective are Cooper’s daring casting choices: Andrew Dice Clay and Dave Chappelle as everyday guys who wouldn’t know what to do with stardom if they found it.

The true surprise, though, is Gaga. She could have been used as a gimmick to lure young audiences. But, when stripped of the makeup, wigs and wild costumes, Gaga proves to be an actress with serious chops — and a voice to boot. Her tears seem genuine, her anger authentic, her reticence realistic. She would have been right for this role without the built-in celebrity draw.

Still, make no mistake: This is Cooper’s coming-out party. Aside from the acting, producing and writing, Cooper’s music is take-home catchy (both Cooper and Gaga are really performing). Cooper speaks with a grizzled slur that is frighteningly authentic. Jack is loving and jealous, kind and cutting, intoxicated and intoxicating. Cooper has managed the toughest feat in painting anti-heroes: creating lovable jerks. Even his look is mesmerizing: Cooper bears a striking resemblance to Kristofferson — just with more nuanced acting skills. Add to that a touching portrait of Jack’s brother and buddy musician Bobby (Sam Elliott), and you have one of the finest ensemble performances of the year.

The second half of the film falters slightly as Cooper steams toward a finale that has many loose ends to tie up within the movie’s 2-hour, 17-minute runtime. And some of the musically-adorned montages feel a little like the glossier versions of earlier renditions of the film. But the final scene is as powerful as the first, and Star‘s overall impact will stick with audiences for days.

Hollywood inevitably over-hypes the caliber of movies released during the Oscar season. But if A Star is Born is any indication of what’s to come, the hype may be worth it.