Movie Review: A Star is Born (2018)
Wouldn’t it have been better without that final confrontation between Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) and Rez (Rafi Gavron), his wife’s idiot Brit manager?
Imagine it. On stage at the Grammys, Maine, falling down drunk, literally pissing in his pants, embarrasses himself and his wife, Ally (Lady Gaga), recipient of Best New Artist. He goes into rehab, seems to come out OK, seems to be doing OK, when, with Ally on tour, we watch in horror as he quietly hangs himself. All of us would wonder why. Which is the exactly question most suicides leave us with. Why?
Instead, we know exactly why. Rez tells Jackson that he ruined Ally’s big moment and he’s ruining her career and she’s better off without him. And Jackson takes all this in and has nowhere to go with it. Away? What away? Into the bottle? That’s what started the problems in the first place. There’s no place to go except that place. So he goes there.
Afterwards, Jackson’s way older brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott), tells Ally that she can’t blame herself for the suicide; it’s not her fault. “You know whose fault it is?” he asks, and before he can give his answer (Jackson’s), every person in the audience is thinking this: “Yeah! Her fucking manager!”
So by extension her. She’s the idiot who brought him onto the scene in the first place.
Maybe it’s time
I guess I liked “A Star is Born” or I wouldn’t care so much about this aspect of it. And I did like it. I felt improbably sad afterward. I felt a void in me. I wanted to cry but couldn’t.
That said, the movie lost itself for me when Rez showed up. I immediately didn’t trust him, but Ally did, she dropped everything for him, and said, basically, “Sure, I’ll have background dancers. Sure, I’ll be Beyoncé #32 amid a Destiny’s Child #89.” The first song she sings for Jackson is “Shallow,” and includes the line, “We’re far from the shallow now.” But given the opportunity, she ran right back to the shallow.
Is that the point? Is that the tragedy? The honesty and truth that he fell in love with goes away, and it’s replaced by something manufactured? And is that ultimately why he kills himself?
Most of you know the story. It’s been made four times now but this was the first time I’d ever seen it. Guess I got some catching up to do.
I knew it, of course. He’s famous, plucks her from obscurity; and as she rises, he falls.
Was it always drink? It is here. Mostly. Jackson Maine is a country-rock star who plays stadium tours before 20,000 screaming fans. He’s recognized everywhere he goes. He’s even recognized in drag bars despite the fact that his music isn’t exactly theirs. That’s where he shows up one night just looking for a drink. He’s immediately befriended by Ramon (Anthony Ramos, John Laurens in the original “Hamilton”), whose friend, Ally, is about to perform. She sings. All the other performers are men in drag who lip synch, but they like having her around. She’s their Bette. That night she sings Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” and for a moment, as she lays on the bar, Jackson stares at her the way we all want to be stared at one day: with pure love.
They have an evening of it: this bar, this fight, this late-night grocery store, this parking lot. She sings him an early version of “Shallow.” Just getting to know each other and enjoy each other. It’s nice. He invites her to his next gig in the next town, but she’s all no, she has to go to her shitty waitressing job. But the manager is a dick, he says the wrong thing, and so she’s gone, she and Ramon, driven then flown to his next show, where they stand in the wings. Apparently, while she was sleeping, Jackson took her song, arranged it, taught it to his band, and he wants her out there singing it in front of 20,000 people. She resists. And resists. And resists. Then jumps. She’s a hit. It’s a beautiful song and a high point in the movie.
At the same time...
The movie spends a lot of time talking about what makes a star. Ally’s working-class father, Lorenzo (Andrew Dice Clay, thriving in his second act), is the first to bring it up. I thought he brought it up in the negative for her—why she wasn’t, despite the talent—but he’s really talking about himself. He had the pipes (or said he had the pipes) like Sinatra, but he was never in the same neighborhood as Sinatra. Why? What’s that other thing? The thing he didn’t have?
Whatever it is, it feels like she has it in the drag bar but not on stage before 20,000 screaming fans. She acts like she shouldn’t be there. It’s a real reaction—a woman who thought she would be waiting tables is instead doing this—but it’s not exactly indicative of stardom. And sure, the pipes. Blew me away. But what’s the difference between Ally doing this and Lisa Fischer singing “Gimme Shelter” with the Stones? Fischer can sing rings around Jagger but it’s still the Stones everyone came to see.
But it’s a movie, so suddenly everyone’s talking about her? I guess. Bradley Cooper, as director, never really pulls back. The media is never present here, it’s omnipresent. It’s assumed. We never see a headline, spinning or otherwise. Instead , we get the fans, and the cashiers taking photos, and YouTube clicks. Maybe that’s the way now. Maybe that’s how it feels inside the phenomenon.
So now she’s Jackson’s gal, a regular on the tour, like Patti Scialfa to Springsteen; and that’s when Rez shows up offering her a deal. And she reacts like she’s still back at the restaurant.
To let the old ways die
Break it down a little. What’s the tension and conflict in the first part of the movie? It’s them getting together and her getting on stage.
And in the second part? What’s the conflict? So many things. It’s not clean.
It’s his drinking, sure. It’s also tinnitus. He can’t hear the rhythm anymore. Is it also less Ally’s rise than the way she rises? As Beyoncé #32? As someone who bypasses the true for the shallow? At one point, early on, he has a conversation with her about getting that moment and telling your truth, and instead it feels like she’s telling Beyoncé’s. She’s telling Rez’s truth, which are lies. She does dance numbers with back-up singers, and sings about ... what? I don’t think I caught one line. It’s like they turned Patti Scialfa into Whitney. They actually tried that with Lisa Fischer and it didn’t take. But in this world it takes. Soon, too soon, she’s playing 20,000-seat stadium concerts on her own.
I always thought the main (or Maine) problem in “A Star is Born” is that the man became jealous of the woman’s success. Here, it feels more like, “You’re becoming the opposite of who I thought you were.” I think that’s why he calls her ugly, too. Not physically; it’s what she’s becoming. He’s created a monster. He thought he was giving the world something true but it was another false idol for them to worship. But if this is there—intended or otherwise—the movie never owns up to it.
Again: Does he kill himself not just because of the tinnitus and the drinking and the embarrassment, but because Rez wins? Because more and more, it’s Rez’s world?
Gaga’s good. Cooper’s great. He should get an Oscar nom just for his gin-soaked voice. I was almost disappointed when Sam Elliott showed up. “Oh, he’s doing Sam.” I thought he was doing Blaze Foley. But then Blaze never played 20,000-seat arenas.
Looking forward to the conversations on this one.