I recently rewatched A Star Is Born, a movie that suggests that if your partner starts making pop music, you should just fucking kill yourself. I had seen the movie and hated it, but my roommate hadn’t seen it and didn’t hate it yet, so I thought it would be fun to watch it together. It was not, because A Star Is Born is not entertaining. It’s too fanciful to be affecting when it’s not too naturalistic to be interesting.
Everyone loved A Star Is Born when it came out, but that was a while ago so I’m going to yuck their yum now.
The writer, director, producer and co-star of the movie is Bradley Cooper, actively fighting his natural charisma to play an alcoholic with tinnitus named Jackson Maine. Lady Gaga is the titular star who gets born: Ally, a waitress who sings at a drag bar at night until she’s discovered by Jackson Maine. She doesn’t have a last name.
Jack is a famous musician who happens to stumble into Ally’s bar while she’s singing. Enchanted, he takes her out for a drink and asks her if she writes songs, too. She says that she doesn’t have the confidence to sing her own lyrics because of how big her nose is. “Almost every single person” in the record industry, she says, “has liked the way I sounded but not the way I looked.”
This is patently absurd, not just because Stefani Germanotta is a beautiful woman, but also because the we, the audience, know that a person who looks like her can become a famous singer because she literally did that. What was Bradley Cooper thinking with this dialogue? Has Bradley Cooper never heard “Poker Face?!”
Anyway, Jackson likes the way that Ally sounds and looks, and the fact that she’s spunky, which you can tell because she punches a cop in a bar out of nowhere. If she’d yelled “ACAB!” while doing it, it would have made sense. But she was just being a lil’ spitfire. Their date ends with Jack icing her hand in a parking lot and Ally improvising a song that could shoot to #1 on the Billboard Charts, just off the dome.
Ally and Jack are both drunk and exhausted, but apparently they both remember every word to the song a week later when he forces her to sing it publicly. This happens because he sends his driver to her house to pick her up, but she doesn’t want to go because she has to work, so the driver stalks her until she quits her job, and then she says she doesn’t want to perform but Jack makes her do it. He sees her potential, so he doesn’t need to respect her wants or needs.
So anyway the star gets born, y’all!
A clip presumably entitled “RANDOM LADY SCREAMS AAAAAA WITH JACKSON MAINE” goes viral when a fan uploads concert footage to YouTube. You would think that she’d get calls from a bunch of managers trying to sign her, but that doesn’t happen. She just tags along on Jack’s tour and every once in a while he’ll grumble into the microphone, “Hey audience, I know y’all paid to see me, an established artist, perform your favorite hits, but tonight’s encore is gonna be my unknown girlfriend performing a song she’s never rehearsed before and no one’s ever heard. I haven’t told her she’s gonna do this but I just blew a rail and think this is a great idea.” Behavior like this helps get Ally out of her comfort zone, I guess.
The movie hammers home certain messages, like Jackson and Ally are In Love and the music industry is wicked and Sam Elliot is Bradley Cooper’s brother but they had different moms so the age difference makes sense, actually. It doesn’t spend much time explaining how any of the key developments in Ally’s career happen. An evil British record exec shows up at one of Jack’s concerts and offers to sign Ally, and she says yes without considering that anyone else in the world might make her an offer. This unassuming woman with a big voice who could play the guitar and piano had gone viral for singing a dramatic country-tinged ballad, so you’d think that this guy would want her to be an Adele type. You’d also definitely think that her debut album should include that big smash song “Shallow” that got everyone on YouTube all hot and bothered.
But you’d be wrong! The evil British music industry man thinks that the world wants to see this soulful 30-something be a dance pop diva. And there’s literally no discussion of this pivot! Ally just starts taking dance lessons and recording songs about butts. It’s not clear if she’s writing these pop songs. It’s not clear if she’s ever danced before, though she’s somehow able to pick up choreography pretty fast. It’s not clear if she’s conflicted about this new direction.
Lady Gaga’s performance as Ally is really fantastic, especially because the script didn’t give Ally much characterization. Jackson Maine has so much backstory. He’s from Arizona. His best friend is a guy named Noodles, played by Dave Chapelle. His dad was buried on a ranch that got sold to be a wind farm, which makes him angry. His brother is Sam Elliot but they have different moms. He and Sam Elliot argue over who is better at having a gruff voice, or something. He has tinnitus and is losing his hearing. He’s an addict who first attempted suicide at 13. His teenage mother, decades younger than his father, died in childbirth.
Ally has no real backstory. Her mom’s also dead, I guess, or not around. It’s never explained. Her dad maybe used to be an alcoholic? “You know all about drunks,” she snaps at her father when discussing Jack’s addiction, a line so vague that I assumed that it would come back later but it did not. She clearly loves to sing and write songs, though we only know for a fact that she performs Édith Piaf covers. Even when she becomes famous, she still doesn’t get a last name, and we’re supposed to believe that a pop star could go by the mononym “Ally.”
Her rise to stardom is similarly unexplored. We see signifiers of her fame — a billboard with her face on it, a Grammy — but we never see Ally grapple with her newfound celebrity. She’s popular enough to book the season finale of SNL, but we never see paparazzi or fans recognize her on the street. Her own husband didn’t realize that she was performing pop music until the SNL taping, though one would assume that she’d have chart-topping singles to land that slot.
Ally has frustratingly little agency in her career. Jack forces her to perform without consulting her on her preferences. Then her Evil British Manager pressures her to dye her hair and wear sparkles onstage. When she struggles in the recording booth in front of Evil British Manager and her song’s producer, Jack steps in to save the session. The only time she asserts herself is to request that she perform without dancers once, but her Evil British Manager tells her not to do that again, so she doesn’t. What does Ally want for her career? Does she want to be a star? Does she want her music to speak to people? The material circumstances of her life change, but we can’t tell if Ally herself changes, because we’re never given any information about who she is to begin with. We know that the industry is changing her because she used to wear floppy hats, but now she wears eyeliner and shirts that say “OH” all over them. It’s short for “OH NO, she’s not interesting and authentic anymore.”
The movie wants us to understand Ally through Jack’s interpretation of her. She’s uncomfortable performing in front of thousands of people without any warning or preparation, but he knows that she’s meant to be a star. She finds success in pop music, but he knows that it compromises her artistic integrity. Pop music, the movie opines, is dumb and meaningless, something that you’d pursue to become famous instead of writing songs with substance. I hate it! Pop music can be brilliant! Did Lady Gaga ever mention on set that pop music is a respectable art form? Was she too focused on getting an Oscar? Has Bradley Cooper never heard “Poker Face?!”
My pitch for the movie, by the way, would be that Ally did want to be a pop star. But she always had to work to help support her family, so she spent her teens and twenties juggling different jobs: waitressing and retail during the day, teaching dance classes at night. When she finally tried to pursue her dream, she was told that she was too old. Pop music is for young people, and women especially can’t break into the industry when they’re starting to age. She meets Jack, they start dating, and he sees her talent as a singer. He tweets out a video of her singing a song at the piano that goes viral. When managers come knocking, though, she chooses to pursue what she really loves: pop music. Jack judges her for this, but she rockets to fame writing bangers. Jack, meanwhile, starts getting bad reviews and fewer opportunities. He thinks it’s because Ally chose to sell out, but the truth is that her music is relevant and great and his is getting stale and unfocused.
I’m not really sure how I’d end my version, because A Star Is Born is a thrice-remade story whose blueprint dictates that it must end in tragedy. I guess I’d like the film to actually examine the toxicity of Jack and Ally’s relationship. As Lindsey Romain wrote in an essay on the subject, “Jackson is also a destructive, cruel human outside of his addiction.” The only real character trait that Ally has is her insecurity with her looks, and in a moment of jealousy and bitterness, her new husband tells her she’s ugly. He never apologizes for this betrayal. But Ally sympathizes with and supports Jack through his low points, reminding him in his stint in rehab that alcoholism is a disease. (As Romain points out, Bradley Cooper is himself a recovering alcoholic, and he portrays addiction honestly when the story isn’t conflating it with abuse.) Presumably, Ally’s feelings are informed by her experience with her father’s alcoholism, but whatever drinking problem that he had (in the past? still?) is never shown to impact her life and only referenced in that one oblique line. Did her father’s alcoholism impact her parents’ marriage? How does she feel about repeating that pattern in her own life?
None of that is examined. Jack and Ally never talk openly about his demons or Ally’s career or how they can make their marriage work. I don’t know that Jack even tells her that he’s losing his hearing, something that seems pretty important. In the end, as in every version of the story, Jackson kills himself to avoid holding Ally back in her career. Evil British Manager kind of put him up to it. That’s show business, baby! You trust someone from the music industry, and he’s gonna make you dye your hair and coax your husband to suicide. It’s like If You Give A Mouse A Cookie.
Ally finally gets a last name — his — when she introduces herself as “Ally Maine” to sing a song in tribute to her late husband. A romantic montage shows the best parts of their relationship, which implies that Jackson was a flawed but good person and their love was difficult but beautiful. It’s a song that Jack wrote, because Ally does not get to express her own feelings in the movie, and it’s titled “I’ll Never Love Again,” which is a bummer because I really would like Ally to love again. Preferably in a healthy relationship with someone who never calls her ugly and supports her career.
It’s nowhere near as good as the Lady Gaga song “Speechless,” which features the same sentiment but addresses alcoholism less romantically. Nothing about A Star Is Born is as good as The Fame Monster, except maybe the memes it inspired.
That’s my opinion! Sorry! I respect pop music and I don’t like stories that use alcoholism for pathos without really examining it and I don’t even enjoy the song “Shallow!” It’s all fine. They’ll remake this movie again in 20 years, and maybe I’ll like that one better.