I saw Lady Gaga/Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born. I have many feelings. My friend thought we were seeing a 2018 version of Almost Famous. I imagined something about a musical. We were wrong.
There are spoilers. So stop here.
Firstly, the singing performances are everything. They soar. Obviously Lady Gaga can sing, but she is not Gaga here. The more she is Ally the more she feels to be someone who could be a version of Stefani Germanotta. And she is raw and real. As for Bradley Cooper, I thought Rocket Racoon was his acting zenith, but as Jackson Maine he puts everything in. And it works. His performances on stage and off are captivating. I believe them both. And when they are on stage, with the crowd, I am there, and it is good.
The Maine Stage
The thing is, with Cooper, there’s always a hint of knowing. Whatever his character, he brings with his performance an air of awareness that the camera loves him. Sometimes he uses this to make his less noble characters seem worthy, and for those instances I want to punch him in his million dollar Limitless grin. Maybe that’s just me.
But as Maine, a famous rock star, this reflexive knowing works because this film also examines the pressures of fame. Thus, Cooper, as Maine, gets to revel in all the star power he can muster to live the rock star moments, while also delivering on the tragedy in the same style, because Maine is apparently an artist concerned about authenticity. However, while his character lives and embarrasses himself in the spotlight, his most intimate and private moment is beyond the camera, his face hidden. As a directorial decision this could have been Cooper’s best one. This and his beard. But this is why I liked him in Guardians of the Galaxy: he didn’t need to radiate charisma with the twinkle in those blue eyes. The fact that the most mean and loving Maine could be to Ally was in regards to her looks said something about his character and hers.
But enough about looks. What this was wasn’t birthing a star, so much as manipulating an audience.
Not enough Gaga – My friend thought Olivia Newton-John’s made for TV biopic was more satisfying, while grumbling that she forfeited two episodes of Bondi Vet for a film that didn’t feature enough Lady Gaga. I agree. Ally undergoes the super star transformation: from hospo worker, club singer to guest vocalist to independent artist. The problem is there’s not enough about the impact of all this. She’s too competent, but also not really seeing how she is being manipulated. But the point is the film is less about Ally becoming a star and more about how Maine’s star falls from grace. (How strange, a film co-written by Cooper spends a lot of time on the tragic story of Cooper’s character.) Anywho, maybe the title should’ve changed, or Gaga been given more time. Speaking of which, Gaga’s story deserves its own film treatment, on top of her Netflix doco, because LG made it through adversity, illness and hard graft and she didn’t have to marry a singer songwriter to do it. She has a worthy genesis story all her own without sharing the limelight.
The death of the artist as a middle-aged bloke – This cocoon/chrysalis/sacrifice idea about success through suffering: I HATE this. No one had to die for Ally to succeed. She was already succeeding, and Maine had returned to writing and also had gained back something of his youthful enthusiasm, according to his brother. Because of Ally. But no. This film teaches aspiring musicians and other cultural workers that our best performances (and thus financial success) are intimately related to being boosted by immense suffering up to and including death, and sharing this pain. Not very inspiring is it?
Ageism– The idea of a 43-year-old musician as ‘over the hill’ was a bit weird. Sure, he couldn’t be whoever the next YouTube kid wonder is, but he is a singer song writer rock/country dude still playing filled stadia and if he’d been sober, with more success at other gigs. It’s never made clear how old Ally is except younger.
Octave Down – There’s a line about Maine stealing his older brother’s voice. I nearly laughed out loud at this. For the entire time Cooper’s Maine has been talking like a strangled bovine, but only because his older brother is played by Sam Elliott, who has a naturally deeper voice. It’s the one weird note in Cooper’s performance. Any instance where he speaks closer to his natural range is better.
Punish the addict – Maine’s character is addicted to alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism for childhood trauma, long-term depression, and tinnitus. The course of his illness runs as often they do: not well, well, not well, CRISIS, rehab, well, slide, death. It’s so common that it’s known that the most dangerous period for someone is immediately after rehab. This film takes the traditional shame and punishment route for Maine over his addictions and behaviours. Rehab in a 12 step program is his punishment, and while it looks like it worked, because he left sober, it failed, because he remained emotionally, and psychologically fragile. But the blame is put back on Maine. All this makes me question why we aren’t more critical of treatments regarding mental health and addiction. We don’t blame cancer patients for dying when treatment fails, so why blame the likes of Maine?
The love story – Maine is a psychologically complex person with a long back story and he barely talks to the woman he loves about any of it. Not about going deaf and experiencing tinnitus, not enough about his feelings about her success, not why he drinks and what the medication (clearly prescription) was for, and no mention of her manager being an arsehole. Instead, we get glimpses as he talks to his brother, his driver, and his rehab counsellor. For an artist interested in communicating truth, he didn’t end up communicating much of it to the one person who had miles of empathy for him. She doesn’t seem very curious either.
DMP Alert – As for Ally’s back story: working class hospo worker not pretty enough for music execs. Fine, I guess, a bit abbreviated but ok. However, we also get yet another Dead Mother Plot, and to quote John McEnroe: COME ON. Replacing an absent mother is a host of amiable, kindly father figures obsessed with Frank Sinatra and who seem vaguely shady because these actors mainly appear in Mob films with names like Pauly.
The big song – Yeah it’s a hit, however…Maine wrote Ally’s number she performs at the end. It is about realising the person you love is the ‘one’, even the last one. It’s a love song, yes, but also a suicide note. And when Ally performs his song it’s amazing, but it also corners her in this grief, in this relationship with the now deceased Maine, for the rest of her life. She might not want ‘to light another fire’ given the intensity of the relationship with her husband, but as an artist and as a human being she can’t cut herself off from experience, even the possibility of future love/s. Again, less uplifting, and more incredibly bleak, due to the plot.
If you’re still intent on viewing this film, go for the dog. Seriously, he is so floofy and bouncy and effective in his role. Go too, for the epic songs that do feel familiar, because of Lady Gaga, and because they’re now charting in their own right, but be aware the story telling and lyrics are working hard to evoke emotions. I was wrung out by this film, so don’t be surprised if you leave with mixed feelings about the utterly predictable decline of one artist involving a needlessly upsetting and futile sacrifice to somehow fulfil the obviously inevitable rise of another.