A Star is Born

*paragraphs with spoilers have been noted below

I was entranced by the trailer for A Star is Born, and the subsequent glowing reviews made me eager to watch Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga bring this story to life. Not having watched any of the previous iterations of this movie (or being aware of them, quite honestly), I was able to watch it with a blank slate and no comparisons.

As a preliminary matter, there was a nagging feeling of annoyance that I had to first shake – the fact that Bradley Cooper, a white, male actor with no directing experience, was basically handed a big-budget movie for his directorial debut. It’s a bitter pill to swallow knowing that he got an opportunity denied to so many struggling directors, many from marginalized groups. But that’s a whole other story for another article, and I pushed that aside, determined to enjoy the movie with an open mind.

Two hours later, I walked out feeling confused and torn. While I can’t deny that I was moved, the multiple concurrent storylines felt disjointed and I struggle to figure out what the movie’s overall message really was.

The story opens with Jackson Maine, an ageing singer privately battling addiction, who discovers the raw singing talents of Ally. After (literally) pushing her to perform during one of his concerts, she becomes an overnight sensation, and climbs a path to fame that soon eclipses Jackson’s. The movie’s parallel storyline follows Ally and Jackson’s tumultuous relationship, impacted by both Ally’s fame and Jackson’s addictions.

A Star is Born: a movie with fantastic acting, but ultimately lacking in focus and a message

The acting in this movie was undeniably fantastic. Cooper nails the nuances of a weathered rock star to perfection – the calm, chilled-out stage demeanour, the casual squinting at the crowd and the relaxed way he speaks to fans. His guttural southern accent and sunburnt face completed the look with effortless accuracy. Gaga is almost unrecognizable as a fresh-faced ingenue who quickly adapts to her success. The delightful surprise breakout of this movie was Ramon, Ally’s enthusiastic best friend who introduced her to Jackson.

Aspects of the story require a certain level of blind acceptance – is it really plausible that Jackson Maine could have just gone to a bar alone with no security, without being recognized? Why was Ally’s initial reaction upon meeting Jackson backstage so normal and blasé (no chance in hell I’d be that casual if I met a celebrity)? And why exactly did she get so angry and punch a drunk guy who wanted to take a photo with Jackson at the bar? Was that supposed to showcase her tough, edgy side? Admittedly, nothing turns on these minor gaps; but I couldn’t help but feel that the story didn’t quite flow at times.

And while I’m being nitpicky (*puts on Movie Nerd glasses*), certain scenes felt weirdly filmed and edited. Notable examples include when Ally woke up to find Jackson in her room (anyone else get major Twilight flashbacks with that scene?), and when Ally and Jackson visited Jackson’s childhood home only to discover that it had been sold. I suspect the editing was meant to have a raw, indie-movie feel, but it just came off badly done. A learning curve attributed to a first-time director? Probably. But what’s interesting is that Cooper hasn’t suffered much criticism for any aspect of his directing—proving the old adage that a *certain demographic* of society continues to benefit from a wide margin for error.

The love between Ally and Jackson was passionate and intense, but quickly turned toxic as Jackson sunk deeper into his addiction. We first saw glimpses of his unsupportive and self-destructive behaviour when Ally told him that Rez wanted to be her producer, and Jackson responded by smearing dessert on her face – an act that Ally, inexplicably, was able to laugh off. It was hard to watch her be so continually steadfast in her love and support for Jackson despite his screw-ups, with his drunken behaviour spoiling multiple career milestones for her.

Their relationship highlights important questions – how long should you stay with someone who is on a downward spiral? How many allowances should you make for the fact that they suffer from an addiction and as a result, might hurt you? How do you determine whether someone is simply using their addiction as an excuse to be awful? How do you walk away from someone who isn’t getting better – and more to the point, should you?

These questions seemed easy enough for Ally, who remained by Jackson’s side and gave new meaning to the notion that love is blind. But I was left with the uneasy feeling that this movie normalized an unhealthy, toxic relationship, with Ally continually giving and Jackson continually self-destructing.

[spoiler alert] As for *that ending* — I didn’t like it, plain and simple. Maybe it’s my own sensitivity, maybe it’s the fact that it’s not what Ally deserved, but it felt like the ending was just thrown in there for maximum dramatic impact. While it’s clear that Jackson is grappling with deep-rooted demons, the movie doesn’t do justice to the complex world of mental health. We don’t find out about Jackson’s prior suicide attempt until over halfway through the movie, and only through one brief scene. His subsequent decision to end his life, and so soon after leaving rehab, seemed like a sudden leap, and the grandma in me worries that this movie romanticizes a serious mental health issue rather than raise awareness to it.

Suicide is a heavy topic to explore, and it’s incumbent on a director to do so thoughtfully and with purpose. In my opinion, a few scattered scenes don’t cut it, and the progression of this storyline is at best rushed, and at worst, irresponsible.

[end of spoiler]

A secondary storyline that felt incomplete was Ally’s career path and her gradual shift to mainstream pop music. As her success grows, we see her change, literally and figuratively; she dyes her hair, follows through with her dance classes, changes her music style, and replaces her previously barefaced visage with makeup, even while lounging at home. Jackson takes issue with these changes, and first takes it out on her manager Rez. But following Ally’s pop-infused SNL performance, Jackson also lashes out at Ally in a particularly memorable scene. He berated and mocked her for no longer having something to say before finally hitting her when he knows it hurts by calling her ugly.

His contempt for the world of mainstream pop, while perhaps well-intentioned, didn’t exactly scream “supportive boyfriend”. Ally herself seemed quite happy with the way her career was progressing, and certainly didn’t indicate any concerns with the new direction her music had taken. It may not have been Jackson’s cup of tea, but his reaction was wildly disproportionate.

I suspect viewers were meant to believe that Ally was forced into the music industry’s Evil Pop Machine, and Jackson simply wanted her to stay true to herself. But it seemed to me that Ally was perfectly content to have “sold out” and embarked in a new direction. If Rez was to be believed, it was Ally herself who chose her new hair color, implying that she had at least some semblance of control over her career. If she happily chose to sing vapid songs, was that really so terrible?

Her excitement over hosting SNL and her overall success should have been enough for Jackson and it felt paternalistic and controlling of him to dictate what music was “worthy” and what wasn’t. If he did have concerns, he could have broached the topic far more effectively; having an addiction is not an excuse to act shitty. While he kept telling Ally to stay true to herself, it seems that in reality, he just wanted her to stay true to who *he* wanted her to be, making him no better than the music industry producers he was so disdainful of.

I walked away feeling that the film packed in too many storylines without fully fleshing out any – Ally’s rise to fame, Jackson’s mental health and addiction, and the tumultuous relationship between the two. Awkwardly shoehorned into this already overcrowded mix was Jackson’s family drama and hearing loss. Everything was inextricably linked – Ally’s success certainly aggravated Jackson’s downward spiral, which in turn caused relationship turmoil. But the stories felt incomplete, possibly because of an overly ambitious first-time director, and the movie on the whole felt like it had no message.

Was this a cautionary tale about fame? It didn’t feel like it, as Ally seemed to embrace it, and Jackson’s demons seemed to ultimately stem from his childhood, not his career. Was it to raise awareness about the evils of addiction and mental illness? Possibly — except it didn’t explore that story enough for it to be meaningful, and what it did show (addiction is Bad and mental illness is Very Bad) could hardly be said to be groundbreaking. Was it to demonstrate how artists have to trade authenticity for fame? Perhaps – but it’s a trite, overdone message and I had a hard time believing that Ally was unhappy with her career direction.

For a movie that continually mentioned “having something to say”, it doesn’t actually seem to nail down its own message. It’s not a bad movie by any stretch, and certainly left me with a lot to think about. But the hype and glowing reviews feel disproportionate – it’s a good movie but with some undeniably missing pieces.

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