A Star Is Born is a classic story that different generations of filmmakers inevitably discover and reincarnate on the big screen. It is easy to understand why Hollywood is so drawn to this love story (and cautionary tale) of the excesses and pressures of Hollywood stardom: A struggling but talented female singer/songwriter wins the heart of a successful male celebrity who nurtures her creativity and career. She ascends to stardom as he crashes and burns in a downward spiral brought on by a combination of despair, drugs, and/or alcohol, culminating in his tragic death.
Bradley Cooper directed the latest version and for my money, it ranks as one of the most entertaining films of 2018, featuring strong performances from the two leads who share a strong onscreen chemistry that makes their doomed relationship all the more devastating.
Some critics label the various films sexist for implying a woman can’t make it as a creative force without a man to pave her way. I think this criticism is unwarranted, at least for this current incarnation. Lady Gaga in the role of Ally is a compelling character, possessing both talent and street smarts. She bemoans the male-dominated music industry that complains her nose is too big and for this reason alone she’ll never make it. Defeated by constant putdowns, Ally tells Jack, “I don’t sing my own songs.”
Ally’s plight will resonate with countless women who’ve tried to advance in a creative field only to be stymied in their efforts for failing to measure up to the unrealistic, unattainable physical standards imposed on them by (mostly) men, the inevitable gatekeepers to such industries.
Nevertheless, while it’s her relationship with Jackson that puts her on the road to stardom, the movie demonstrates upfront that Ally is a major talent prior to their initial meeting. When Jackson first discovers Ally she’s a featured act at a drag club performing a beautiful rendition of a classic Edith Piaf song “La Vie en Rose.” Her singing talent and stage presence captivate the entire venue, including him. And she only becomes an overnight sensation when a song she’s written and performed goes viral. True, Jackson is responsible for putting her on the stage, but Ally’s talent commands what follows. She lands a manager and signs with a major recording label; she records an album and wins Grammy awards. Jackson undeniably nurtures Ally easing her nerves during a panic attack at a first recording session, giving her advice on navigating her newfound fame—but there is never any question that it’s her talent, drive and perseverance that brings her to the pinnacle of her profession.
My one issue with the film’s portrayal of Ally is her abrupt about-face once she achieves fame. Her character quickly devolves from serious songwriter to a pop music princess complete with backup dancers, lame choreography, silly outfits and manufactured bubblegum music. I missed the serious songwriter who once displayed on the wall in her bedroom the cover of Carole King’s landmark album “Tapestry” and beautifully sang a cappella. To assure the audience she has not completely surrendered her integrity to achieve stardom, she argues with her manager about changing her hair color, refusing to bleach her hair because that would compromise her values. She settles for red instead.
Watching the film, I could not help but wonder if a female screenwriter would have handled her artistic integrity with a more thoughtful approach. I wanted Ally to rebel against the industry that reduced her great talent to a bubblegum mockery. Jackson, despite his obvious flaws and frequent intoxicated state remains true to his artistry, unconcerned about his disheveled appearance and playing the serious music he wants to play. Contrariwise, Ally must change her music, her name and her wardrobe. The contrast between the two is striking and reveals the disparate treatment of female recording artists.
At one point, while rehearsing with backup dancers at a studio, Ally says, “I don’t want to lose the part of me that is talented.” It’s unclear if Ally will be able to retain her great talent and still achieve great success. Perhaps this is the compromise women must make to achieve that level of fame in the music industry. Lady Gaga shed some insight into this when she recently won a Golden Globe. In her acceptance speech, she said, “I just have to say, as a woman in music, it is really hard to be taken seriously as a musician and songwriter.” If Ally seems untroubled by the compromises she has made and all to eager to abandon her dream of being a serious songwriter, perhaps it is the industry that made her that way.
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