“A Star Is Born” May Not Get Pop Music Right, But It Gets That It Matters

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga have remade A Star Is Born as a tender, conflicted love story for the age of poptimism. (Spoilers, if you haven’t caught any of the three previous versions of this movie.)

Bradley Cooper plays a bronzed and battered rock god named Jackson Maine in A Star Is Born, his directorial debut. Lady Gaga plays Ally, a striver with a big voice and a gift for songwriting who Jackson sees performing at a drag bar one night. Later, they sit in a grocery store parking lot under the bright fluorescents and talk about music, and he coaxes out snippets of a song she's been working on that then, suddenly, comes together like magic. It’s the magic of movies, sure, but also of two people who are, in that moment, creatively sympatico, utterly enraptured with each other and with each other's talents.

Jackson tells Ally that she should perform her own work, that he thinks she's beautiful and shouldn't pay any attention to people who say otherwise. (That thing from the trailer, where he runs his finger along her nose to prove how much he loves it? It's weirdly sexy-sweet in context.) And then, a day later, he pulls her onstage during his show and she belts out the chorus of the song she'd sung to him, a song you'll have stuck in your head for the rest of the year, and he laughs with the sheer joy of it all as the crowd roars its approval, and for a second it seems like it could be just that easy — just that easy to be loved.

It doesn't stay that way, though. Not just because Jackson has alcoholism and doesn't know how to live when he's not onstage. And not just because Ally starts carving out a career for herself as a pop star with a new look and backup dancers, far enough outside of Jackson's guitar-and-grit sensibilities that he's inclined, in his drunker moments, to suggest that she's selling out. It's not easy because this is A Star Is Born, a parable about how fame can warp you and ruin you, and about how it's still the only dream worth having — Hollywood's favorite story about itself, a movie that's been made and remade four times now over the span of eight decades.

Every iteration portrays show business as callous, compromised, and as likely to cannibalize its own as to celebrate them. But then where else are you going to go? You're going to live your life out of the spotlight, like a schnook, when there's a chance that hoards of fans could be screaming your name?

Those first two movies were about the movies, with Janet Gaynor in 1937 as a naive North Dakota farm girl with actorly aspirations and Judy Garland in 1954 as a singer who's been touring with a band, and Fredric March and James Mason played respective versions of the love interest, a leading man with a drinking problem. In the 1976 Barbra Streisand remake, the story flipped to being one about musicians, with Kris Kristofferson as a forever-unbuttoned rock star who definitely provided inspiration for Cooper's version of the character. But while the fashions and the details change, the basic outline remains the same (spoiler warning for this oft-told tale):

There's a woman who's trying to make it big, and a man who already has. When their paths cross, he offers her the break that launches her into orbit just as his own career starts falling apart. They fall in love and marry, and she get made over by the machine while he struggles with his substance abuse and professional decline. When she wants to sacrifice her success in order to help him, he kills himself (or sets himself up to die) rather than do what he considers to be holding her back. She mourns and then reemerges to take her place at center stage — in the spotlight, but also permanently shadowed by tragedy.

The reason people keep going back to A Star Is Born has always seemed to have as much to do with its inherent uneasiness as with its swoony sadness.

This movie has everything: a swept-off-your-feet romantic fantasy, an underdog-makes-good journey, a wrenching substance abuse drama, and an industry cautionary tale combined. The studio-maimed 1954 musical is an incontestable classic; the new version is, doubters be damned, an absolute banger; and even the iteration that really isn't good, the 1976 Streisand vehicle, manages to be mesmerizing. But it's also kind of a fucked-up fable, what with the whole dying-to-preserve-your-loved-one's-career thing. The reason people keep going back to A Star Is Born has always seemed to have as much to do with its inherent uneasiness as with its swoony sadness, the way it feels like it's not quite broken, but still needs to be fixed. It is an unstable narrative compound in need of being reformulated every two decades or so to be made sharper and truer to our particular moment.

Each iteration of this movie is a reflection of where we stand, with regard to the way it treats fame, addiction, and gender. And, in 2018, it's filtering those questions through the lens of pop music — which makes sense, given that the movie stars a famous pop diva in her first big movie role, and also doesn't make sense, because Cooper and his cowriters Eric Roth and Will Fetters don't quite seem to get pop music.

They try, though, or at least try to acknowledge their own lack of understanding, and A Star Is Born may be a more interesting movie for it. It actively grapples with its own bemusement about the idea that pop stardom can have its own artistic legitimacy, and with the possibility that industry forces are a complex ecosystem that can be navigated instead of just surrendered to or fought against.

In one sense, A Star Is Born has arrived over a decade late to the cultural conversation about taking pop music seriously. It was back in 2004 that Kelefa Sanneh wrote in the New York Times that "Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher."

And it was in 2009 that Gaga herself told an interviewer who asked about the saltiness of her lyrics: "If I was a guy and I was sitting here with a cigarette in my hands, grabbing my crotch talking about how I make music because I like fast cars and fucking girls, you'd call me a rock star. But when I do it in my music and videos, because I'm a female and I make pop music, you're judgmental and say it's distracting."

In 2018, this fight — a battle, to use the same term as the choreographer Ally starts working with — feels pretty fought and won, which may be why this A Star Is Born, title aside, is an elegy as much as it’s a story of teary, tragedy-basted triumph. In this latest retelling, A Star Is Born has become a tender, conflicted saga for the age of poptimism, seen through the (sometimes blurry) eyes of a character who has resigned himself to vanishing with the old world order.

When Bradley Cooper did a screen test with Lady Gaga for A Star Is Born in 2016, he came at her with a makeup wipe first, taking off whatever she had on in order to see her bare face. “Completely open. No artifice," the LA Times quotes him as saying. If it sounds like it could be a scene in a movie, it is — the 1954 A Star Is Born, in which Judy Garland's character gets worked on by studio pros before her own screen test, and informed of all the things they perceive to be wrong with her features. She emerges, confidence shattered and so extremely made over that James Mason, playing her movie star love interest Norman Maine, laughs when he sees her, then slathers cold cream on her and tells her to "take every bit of that junk off [her] face" before she goes in front of the camera.

The Star Is Born scene lightly echoes the real-life cruelty Garland experienced during her career; repeatedly told she was ugly and fat, she was given pills by the studio from an early age to keep her weight down and her energy up, sending her into a lifetime of substances abuse issues. But Gaga isn't Garland, and any attempt to free her from the "artifice" of makeup would be a serious oversimplification of the pop star's relationship with image and beauty, which over the years has taken her from playing around with the surreal and grotesque alongside more traditional glamour.

Makeup and fashion are not obscuring her work; they're part of it. And appearing bare-faced, as she does in the first parts of the movie, in not a sign of her being stripped down to some more essential truth, but a look at another persona: Gaga, serious actor. She turns out to be a startlingly good one, playing Ally as gifted but guarded, someone who's lived long enough to be bruised by the industry, but who keeps singing, and who's smart enough to know that this hard-living celeb is going to hurt her, but who falls in love with him anyway.

Ally will, eventually, get a manager and an album deal. She will dye her hair a Gaga-esque orange and learn to dance. She will write a song about butts and perform it on Saturday Night Live. The butt song is the biggest mystery in A Star Is Born — is it supposed to be bad? Good? The way the story is structured would suggest it's meant to signal Ally has started making soulless, synthetic music in order to secure the spotlight. We watch her from the sidelines of the SNL soundstage in a way that emphasizes the practiced performance of it all, a stark contrast to the way cinematographer Matthew Libatique's camera gets up close and intimate when Ally is onstage with Jackson. At the same time, it doesn't sound that bad or that outlandish — certainly not embarrassing, which is what Jackson calls it and her, mystified by the idea that someone would ever aim to make a bop.

Stardom has always been an artificial construct, a mass delusion in which we feel a deep connection with someone we in fact know very little about. The first A Star Is Born is lightly satirical about this charade, with Norman selling Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) to the studio by talking up how she has the “sincerity and honestness that makes great actresses." Of course, once she's signed, her personal history is rewritten by a press agent, and she's christened with a new name ("Vicki Lester"), instructed in a new way of speaking, and given new eyebrows.

In the second A Star Is Born, Garland's Esther sometimes seems in danger of getting ground up by the system, something you never worry about in Streisand's version. Her Esther holds on to her name and belts songs that are right for her and so woefully out of place for the rock audiences she's supposed to be winning over that even her frequently sidelined love interest points out that their music doesn't really belong on the same stage. She doesn't act in the movie so much as mold it around herself ("Ms. Streisand's clothes from...her closet," the credits read), and the result is both terrible and a fascinatingly unapologetic document of a star’s own self-image.

Ally is different from all of these Esthers. She is a very 21st-century portrait of a pop star, one engaged in ongoing negotiations with her management about everything from her hair color to whether she should use the backup dancers provided to her; her career is a collaborative effort. The second half of the movie pushes her rise to fame into the background, in part to focus on Jackson's decline, but also because it seems uncertain of how to treat these developments, or how to resist wagging a finger at them as evidence of artistic compromise.

Jackson's relationship to fame is reluctant (though when he's made to play backup to a younger artist later in the movie, he's upset). He wants to drink unbothered at the cop bar he likes while everyone pretends not to know who he is, and he talks about having to make peace with doing the occasional corporate gig for cash. But Ally is portrayed as simultaneously being an artist and doing a job, and unlike Jackson, she doesn't seem to see a contradiction in that.

A Star Is Born has a touch of the fairy tale to it, but it's Jackson Maine who is actually its most fanciful figure, at least in the intensely fragmented, pop and hip-hop–dominated reality of today’s music industry — a rootsy, still youngish rocker so famous that he plays arenas and gets widely recognized in public. Cooper's talked about pulling some inspiration from Eddie Vedder, but there's really no present-day equivalent for Jackson. The keepers of his sort of troubled musical artistry now are more likely to be SoundCloud rappers with an array of facial tattoos and a record of openness about their mental health issues. Jackson is more an embodiment of long-established ideas of rock ‘n’ roll authenticity — dusted with road grit, voice like gravel, unstintingly personal in his work, and unable to deal with the distance created by the devices he's supposed to wear to guard his hearing, even though going without them is causing even more permanent damage.

A Star Is Born is an elegy for Cooper’s character, but also for the brand of hypermasculine rock deity he represents.

When he and Ally are alone, writing songs together, they're on the same page. It's when they go out into the world and contend with the careers they want to have that they diverge, and she won't follow him down his path of self-destruction, where substance abuse signals creative realness. The movie doesn't let his damage look romantic — even in their first night together, after a delirious round of post-show celebration, he turns out to be too drunk to do anything more than pass out and be put to bed like a child.

But, while A Star Is Born pokes at the mythology of artistic legitimacy that Jackson represents, and even though the story is about him being shuffled off the stage, it still values his musicality. It's not just that he gives Ally a chance to pull a runaround on the industry gatekeepers who'd previously rejected her; his endorsement of her work has meaning to her, and by extension, to us. He may not understand the kind of performer she becomes, but he appreciates her talent.

A Star Is Born is an elegy for Cooper's character, but also for the brand of hypermasculine rock deity he represents — one who isn't going to blink out of existence, but who has certainly gone out of style. Ally couldn't really be like him, even if that's what she wanted. Being whiskey-soaked, road-worn, and incapable of pretense wouldn't wear the same way on her, because those tend to be seen as markers of legitimacy on men and signs of being unappealing, difficult, a mess on women. The rock/pop divide in A Star Is Born isn't entirely gendered, though that's a central part of it — and you never feel it more than in Jackson's lack of understanding as to why it isn't enough that he believes Ally is beautiful, because he isn't the one who's been denying her opportunities based on her looks. To be indifferent about being liked or about how you look are privileges that aren’t often afforded to women, especially when they’re starting out.

It feels telling that the turning point in the central relationship, in every version of A Star Is Born, takes place during its female lead's first big moment of professional recognition. In the first two, it's at the Oscars, where the male lead drunkenly interrupts his wife’s acceptance speech to steal her spotlight and give an embittered rant about his own decline. To add injury to insult, in both of those scenes he ends up unintentionally belting her across the face, a sequence of such awfulness that the very experience of watching it feels masochistic. Cooper's interpretation of the scene, which, like the 1976 version, takes place at the Grammys, excises the inadvertent violence and heaps all the humiliation on Jackson. It's deftly done, but just as agonizing.

This moment feeds into the sense that, even in what is a rockist's retreat, the rock star is not going to go entirely gently. The ending of the movie, the same as all the previous versions, is still a tragedy, and it’s also still a man doing what he thinks of as saving a woman from herself. A Star Is Born is, in some ways, a story about a woman trying to make it in a world that is still controlled at every access point by men. The irony of its tragic ending is that it sets up this terrible decision she has to make, and then allows the man she loves to make it for her, for her own good.

Every iteration of A Star Is Born is informed by the belief — the fear, really — that public attention and affection are finite resources, and that the creation of new celebrities requires older ones to be discarded. In this new version, pop stars are coming into the forefront and pushing rock stars of the sort Jackson represents out of the spotlight, as they sing songs of their own obsolescence ("Maybe it's time to let the old ways die"). It's fine, it's fine, except it isn't, because he has to die along with those old ways — a sign that even in its fourth iteration, this story is still one in which it's better to vanish entirely than stick around to see someone else claim the spotlight. ●

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