**Please Note This Discussion Contains Spoilers**
Looking at the most popular movies of recent times you would have to conclude that most of us don’t want to see a tragedy set in the modern world. Maybe we feel safer, more reassured if the potential horrors are set in a post apocalyptic landscape or a world populated by superheroes. Telling the truth about the nasty struggles of everyday people is a tougher sell. Thankfully that fact did not deter Bradley Cooper from remaking A Star is Born, refusing to shy away from addressing some of the all too real complexities of life as a famous musician and an addict. Anyone who enters the theatre expecting a lightweight tale of the rise of a pop star will be surely shocked at the depths of despair this film is prepared to reach.
Tragedy on such an epic scale could only be set in the world of show business, where it seems even the biggest stars lurch from one inexplicable personal horror to another, with many dying young or in desperate circumstances. Another tragic element of the industry, and of life I guess, is that eventually your time runs out and another younger, fresher talent is waiting to step into your spotlight. To balance the downfall A Star is Born, as the title suggests, will also brings us the rise of a superstar, with music so good it will crush your heart in two.
The story of Jackson Maine is a familiar one to anyone who knows music history. Method acting a rock star might seem like fun on paper but what makes this film so compelling is that Cooper is prepared to play out both his fantasies and their corresponding nightmares in a raw and visceral way.
His character is seen headlining shows, playing the likes of Glastonbury and Coachella, where he has fans mobbing him everywhere he goes. However behind it all he’s a wreck. Even when he finds a woman whom he adores and is reconciled with his brother (played brilliantly by Sam Elliott) he still can’t get it together. Some critics have interpreted the downward arc of his character as being a metaphor for ‘the death of the great white male rock star’, a sign of the changing times. At one point in the film Cooper’s character sings a song written by Jason Isbell which has the line ‘maybe it’s time to let the old ways die’. You hear the defeat and the sadness in every word.
And yet after thinking about the movie for a few days I’ve come to the conclusion that no, I don’t believe that’s what ‘A Star is Born’ is about. The movie portrays Jackson as still being at the top of his game and his songs still sound vitally alive and fierce to me (also thanks to some wonderful songwriting from Lukas Nelson). He may be going through the motions until he meets Ally, but this movie is not about a fading rockstar – it is about the tragedy of addiction, illness and the fact that for some people the need to turn pain in on yourself can be an inescapable curse.
At one point Jackson talks about trying to kill himself as a kid, spinning it into almost a bleakly comic story. Depression follows him through his life. As an adult he refuses to get help for his crippling hearing problem and he self-medicates with alcohol and drugs to an alarming degree. Inevitably he can’t get a grip of himself and this leads to humiliation after humiliation. Even when he gets married and sober (and buys a perfect dog) problems still become overwhelming. He reaches a breaking point where he thinks everyone is better off without him. The line ‘maybe it’s time to let the old ways die’ is no longer a call to stay sober, instead it’s a condemnation of himself completely.
Throughout the movie Jackson performs on stage without his hat, removing it becomes a part of his authentic stage prescene. So when he lays down his hat for the final time we know he is going to act out the doomed rock star myth right to the end. The suicide scenes are tastefully done and acted with devastating brilliance by both Cooper and Gaga. After his death Ally has a conversation with his brother, who tries to reassure her the death was no one’s fault, except Jackson’s himself. I’m not sure the film really supports that theory, especially with the triggering speech given by Ally’s cartoonish sockless manager right before Jackson decides to kill himself. For me the film makes a case that the rise of Ally’s character to stardom is one of the reasons why he does make that choice. His character is shown to be selfish, weak and unable to handle her success.
The film’s portrayal of Jackson’s downfall is much more nuanced and original than the corresponding scenes of Ally’s rise to fame. Lady Gaga gives a convincing and admirable performance throughout the movie but strangely she’s strongest in the scenes where she’s just a woman falling in love and when she’s singing the rootsy rock songs she’s written with Jackson. Where the movie falters for me is when it tries to show how she becomes the biggest pop star in the world.
Firstly it does seem a little strange that the Ally character would flip so quickly over to pop when most of the movie we are invested in her as a different kind of singer. But when you analyse the film a little more you start to realise that her working with Jackson musically is actually a diversion for her, rather than a true path. The fact is that in real life Lady Gaga didn’t actually need a Jackson Maine to become a megastar. At the start of the movie when she’s in the drag bar performing La Vie En Rose she knows she has talent and she flaunts it with flair. So those scenes when she looks bashful on stage don’t fit with this origin story. Later when Cooper condemns her for ‘selling out’ he is just projecting his own ideas of what artist he wants her to be. Ally was never a guitar playing, country rock singer – that’s just who he tried to make her into. In order to become a star she has to go her own way.
Sadly it is this part of the movie which does Gaga a bit of a disservice. When ‘Ally’ becomes a success her big pop song has crass lyrics and a bad dance routine, meaning the film plays into that cliche that ‘pop is bad’ and ‘guitar music is good’, which Jackson also throws at her in the horrific bathroom scene. The movie would have been better if Ally’s hit songs had matched the quality pop music which made Gaga famous in the first place. As it is the memorable songs she sings in the film are Shallow and Always Remember Us This Way, both of which are written and performed before the arc when she becomes a pop star.
The other standout song in the movie is ‘I’ll Never Love Again’, performed by Ally in the final scene as a tribute to her dead husband. During the performance we also see the song’s genesis as an understated ballad Jackson wrote on the piano. In contrast Gaga performs it with dramatic, showstopping abandon. Both versions are equally good, suggesting that pop music doesn’t have to be seen as inferior to rock.
It’s devastating and moving and spectacularly sung and yet it felt hollow that this was how it all had to end. Afterwards I started thinking that the braver, more beautiful thing would have been to let Jackson Maine’s star be reborn. I couldn’t help but think of Jason Isbell’s real life struggles and then I imagined the final sequence playing out so differently.
Instead of Gaga’s lament for her lost love I see a clean Jackson Maine, walking on stage with his guitar, hearing aids fitted. He starts singing ‘Cover Me Up’ by Jason Isbell – a song about how love can save your life. The audience cheer the line about getting sober ‘and I swore off that stuff / forever this time’ like they do every night at Isbell’s real life shows. Ally joins him on stage, singing harmony. Home is a dream / one I’d never seen til you came along. Together they go forward, in music and love and life until time runs out.
Maybe I’m just an old sentimental fool but that’s the ending I wanted to see. One star being born doesn’t mean another has to die. Recovery and redemption are possible. Survival is as natural as sorrow.
A Star is Born is a brave and beautiful tragedy, with performances which deserve to be celebrated. This is a story so timeless that it is inevitable that someone will remake it again in the future. Maybe then we can have the ending that this love story deserves.