The acclaimed A Star is Born burns brightly, but not unlike its central character, fades when examined closely.
Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born, the fourth incarnation to use the title, will get Oscar buzz aplenty in the coming months. In many ways, it probably deserves it – it shows a great deal of directorial talent for a debut feature, and has some of the year’s best performances. This not only goes for Cooper, playing double-duty is the film’s lead, but also for Stefani Germanotti (Lady Gaga), who is highly effective in her dramatic role, especially given her relative inexperience. The music is terrific, and Gaga cleary has the singing chops for more than her own brand of pop in real-life. The concert performance of “Shallow End” is one of the most effective musical performances in a film in recent memory, and the chemistry between Cooper and Gaga makes it all the more believable.
But the film is not really about the music itself, nor is it about the destructive nature of fame, as some previous iterations have been. On the surface, it’s about the starry-eyed beginnings of what would come to be a troubled relationship. Jackson Maine (Cooper), an enormously successful country-rock singer battling alcoholism and drug addiction, stumbles into a bar where Ally (Gaga) is performing. He pulls her into the music business and she has nearly instant success, but when her fame starts to outshine his own (or perhaps when her brand and use of artistry departs from his own), his addiction becomes worse, and Ally’s newfound celebrity gives way to a very complicated life. Our main characters are more complicated than that synopsis might suggest. Jack, for example, is a bastard son who was mostly raised by his much older half-brother. His father, as we later found out, “made him his drinking buddy.” His mother died at birth and his father when he was 13. It doesn’t change the fact that he’s jealous and, at times, manipulative. It does, however, give his character some extra depth. Ally, while never fleshed out as well as she should have been, has an earnestness and naivete that endears her to the audience. She also has to take care of her dad, and endures a crappy day job when she’s not singing.
Beneath these exteriors of plot and character arcs, however, there’s a metaphor that informs the film’s progression. Without understanding the metaphor, the film feels random and almost anticlimactic. It becomes more apparent when you consider the song that opened the film’s first trailer: “Maybe It’s Time” (to let the old ways die). That song illustrates what the film is about more than its central troubled relationship – Cooper’s grisly country-rock star fades as Gaga’s pop queen emerges. Some important story elements are sacrificed as a result of this metaphor (our fading star’s addiction battle is particularly devoid of hope), but the metaphor itself is troubling to me. There’s a lack of nuance in the approach, indicating the impossibility of a synthesis between new and old. Learning from the old ways while exploring the new doesn’t seem to be the film’s approach. Not that Christians should worship the old ways any more than the new – we would do well do remember “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.” (Ecclesiastes 10:9). But neither should we throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Not that the film is pure metaphor. There’s character stuff going on too, including a very moving moment between Jack and his older brother near the film’s end. But I do think this is the central theme, and it’s not one I’m willing to embrace, even if it does feature some compelling story elements. Devoid of hope and with a shortsighted central theme, all the film really has left to teach us is the vanity of the famous life, a subtheme it isn’t really interested in exploring. As Ally lifts her face to the camera in the closing moments, it seems that we’re supposed to take her as the victor in this great conflict. But of course, the film doesn’t show what happens in the next changing of the generations, when Ally herself becomes the washed-up star fading into insignificance. Maybe then the film would have something self-aware to say.