A Star Is Born and our ongoing fascination with 'the star-maker machinery'
One of the most magical moments in director Bradley Cooper's showbiz melodrama A Star Is Born comes over the opening titles, as a bedraggled New York waitress named Ally (played by pop sensation Lady Gaga) walks past her restaurant's dumpster and through a little tunnel, all the while singing a song that echoes off the walls. She's silhouetted against one of the city's busy thoroughfares, yet as she belts out a ballad, she's totally alone, completely unseen and unheard. And she is, to put it mildly, amazing.
Given the movie's title, it's not a spoiler to say that A Star Is Born ends with Ally singing to thousands of adoring fans — albeit still isolated, in a spotlight on a stage. Cooper and his co-screenwriters Eric Roth and Will Fetters spend the intervening two hours asking how much Ally has had to compromise, between the backstreets and the big time.
Officially, A Star Is Born has been made for the silver screen four times. The 1937 version, directed by William Wellman and written by an all-star team of screenwriters (including Dorothy Parker), starred Janet Gaynor as an aspiring actress and Frederic March as the drunken ex-star who falls in love with her as he helps boost her career. In 1954, director George Cuckor and screenwriter Moss Hart made a more epic A Star Is Born, with Judy Garland and James Mason playing out the same saga of Hollywood highs and lows. Then in 1976, director Frank Pierson (co-writing with Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne) shook up the story, setting it in the music business, with Kris Kristofferson as the boozy has-been and Barbra Streisand as the up-and-comer.
Cooper's Star (opening everywhere this Friday) heavily references Pierson's. He plays roots-rocker Jackson Maine, who's sort of a cross between Eddie Vedder and, well, Kris Kristofferson. Lady Gaga plays a New York underdog, a lot like Streisand in her early years, perpetually underestimated for her unconventional look.
The actors' performances are often raw and improvisatory, like something out of a 1970s movie. The film sports some spectacular visual textures, making great use of the many kinds of lighting that a touring musician would encounter every day. But inside that well-crafted frame, the characters are restless and overwhelmed.
Cooper also revives some of what made the earlier A Star Is Born films special: namely their depiction of the intricacies involved in becoming famous in a multimillion-dollar business.
In the new movie, Jackson gives Ally a showcase at one of his concerts, which quickly becomes a viral YouTube clip. Music industry executives then step in, peeling Ally away from Jackson, and giving her a makeover and back-up dancers. The label loves her voice and her attitude ... but only to the extent that they can package it.
Heartless commercialism has been a common theme of these kinds of backstage dramas, dating back at least as far as 1932, in the film often cited as the real inspiration for the first A Star Is Born. The melodrama What Price Hollywood? stars Constance Bennett as a waitress who becomes a movie actress and soon finds that the whirlwind of production and promotion keeps her from enjoying any of her success.
The story has taken on a slightly different form over the years, especially when the subject shifts from cinema to the music business. In 1979's The Rose, Bette Midler is a Janis Joplin-like superstar, on the verge of flaming out, but only after her hangers-on milk her for everything she's got. In 1983's Eddie and the Cruisers, a bar band struggles to defy the public's expectations for what they can be. In 1992's The Bodyguard, Whitney Houston is an actress/singer who lives in a bubble of wealth and can't grasp that her life is in danger. In 1996's That Thing You Do!, Tom Hanks is a cynical music promoter who squeezes every dollar from a one-hit wonder. And in 2014's Beyond the Lights, a young R&B artist escapes from her handlers and considers changing her entire look and sound.
In all of these pictures, a youthful enthusiasm for making music — or really any kind of popular art — is threatened by the businessmen, who keep insisting that only they know best how to turn a fleeting phenomenon into a long, healthy career. But at what cost?
Why do these kinds of stories resonate? Maybe it has to do with our fascination with process. On our TVs, we like to watch detectives catching criminals, doctors healing the sick, and carpenters building things. And we're also interested in what Joni Mitchell once called "the star-maker machinery behind the popular song."
Or maybe it's just reassuring to find out that the rich and famous are struggling in their own ways. Unlike us, they may not worry about paying their bills, but they're still exhausted, lonely, and so obligated to other people that they can't do whatever they want.
Given that Cooper co-wrote, co-produced, directed, and co-stars in A Star Is Born (and also contributed to some of the songs), it's tempting to see the project as his grand statement on the pressures of celebrity life circa 2018. That's the premise of a recent New York Times profile, in which the excellent writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner finds herself stymied by the actor's unwillingness to open up about his personal life, even while promoting such a personal film.
There's a lot in the new movie about how Jackson gets through a typical day. Though still well-known enough to make good money on tour, he's physically and creatively exhausted, relying on pills and liquor to keep him on a relatively even keel until it's okay for him to pass out. Unlike some films about alcoholic artists, A Star Is Born does a fine job of showing how Jackson functions as a musician, and even portrays him as being sweet enough and periodically sober enough to win the heart of a woman like Ally.
In the end though, this Star — like the ones before — isn't really the man's story. He's useful in that he can warn his lover/protégé about the pitfalls ahead, right before he himself becomes one of those obstacles. But A Star Is Born really only works if it's about the heroine overcoming her self-doubt and making the most of her talent.
What sets this new version apart is that while Jackson Maine (and perhaps even Cooper himself) is skeptical about all the costumes, choreography, and technical polish of modern pop, the oft-overlooked Ally appreciates the attention. More importantly: The woman playing her, Lady Gaga, has been put through this hit-maker mill herself and has still produced music she can stand behind.
There's a purity to Gaga's voice in that introductory scene. And throughout the movie her character crushes every song she performs, from surging anthems like "Shallow" to tender ballads like "I'll Never Love Again." It doesn't seem to matter much to Ally what she sings, or how her management and production teams massage it. She's not as fussy or philosophical as Jackson. She's cracked the code of how to get through the industry grinder. She just opens her mouth and lets go.