Criticism of music is interesting because people’s tastes differ so much and there’s a vast discrepancy with what everyone likes. Popular music is typically detested by music snobs, but their notions are impossible to understand by the mass public because those are the people listening to popular music, thus making it popular. Then you have the idea that it’s a chicken-before-the-egg situation where the record labels, run by businessmen–not artists or musicians–are basically deciding what the public is exposed to by utilizing their massive bank accounts. This is 2018’s A Star Is Born treads those waters carefully without making a clear and definite statement–per se. This newest incarnation of this story is the fourth–with the first being from 1937 and the most recent being 1976.
We follow a young woman, Ally, played by Lady Gaga, who has an undeniable vocal talent. And she really knows her stuff, somewhat of a music snob herself. She’s musically cultured, singing an Edith Piaf song from the ’40s and Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (a nod to the 1954 adaptation starring Garland), but she’s also a killer songwriter. Massively popular country music sensation Jackson Maine, played by Bradley Cooper, who also directs, discovers her singing in a bar one night and takes her under his wing, encouraging her to let people hear her songs.
Maine, who is on the back nine of his own career, struggles with substance abuse and depression. His and Ally’s relationship blossoms beautifully throughout the film and the two leads have a chemistry that’s off the charts. After Jackson bringing Ally on stage with him during his tour, she gets discovered by a major record label executive, Rez (Rafi Gavron). This is when the drama and commentary starts.
The first 20 minutes had me believing that the movie was going in a certain direction. I thought, “it’s going to be about this talented singer who, by happenstance, meets a really famous musician and becomes an overnight sensation. Then we’ll see how fame made her life worse and ruined her. Big deal. Give me La La Land instead.” And if this movie was about Ally and her rise to stardom, it would have been as self-indulgent and eye-rolling as I predicted. But the story is really about Jackson and his counterpoint to Ally’s fame.
Jackson is a country singer, and the type who is all about the music. He’s a visionary and a true artist. He sees this in Ally, but becomes troubled when her manager and label are turning her into a run-of-the-mill pop star. To him, her music is losing its integrity and the label seems to only care about her image and staying relevant.
This strikes a nerve with Jackson, who is a music purist, but is also losing his relevance. The former is his biggest concern, although the reality of the latter makes his approach to advising his girlfriend appear more selfish to Ally. The movie doesn’t technically appear to be leaning one way or the other when it comes to who’s right, although it’s pretty obvious if you’re on the same side of the fence as Jackson. To most of the audience, I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with the broad appeal of Ally’s new musical direction.
If you know where to look, the film lets you in on what it believes. Not with a direct statement, because that’s not what good films do. Instead it gives the audience a bit too much credit to figure it out on their own and interpret Ally’s career for themselves. Or perhaps this is all a subtle wink to those who are able to pick up on the film’s jokey satire. The fact that Ally’s pop song has been playing on the radio here in Los Angeles for months is basically the punchline.
A Star Is Born is a film that stays with you for awhile. It’s a study on Cooper’s character and the sad reality of a man, not just a musician. Although Rez never gets his comeuppance (perhaps because those types of people are always ruining people’s lives with no consequences), and Jackson never gets his redemption, the trajectory is eye opening and realistic. But in a movie that ended up becoming mainstream, I think these are ideals that are just going to go over most people’s heads. Because I’m not giving the audience the same credit.