Listening for the music in “A Star is Born”

Is the new film “A Star is Born” a musical? This seems a bizarre question to ask. Obviously it is a musical. Except, this week it was announced that the musical (?) love-story would be competing at the Golden Globe Awards in the Drama category rather than in the Musical/Comedy category. And whether this was a move to secure maximum awards hardware, or a reflection of the film’s own ethos, I went into the screening for it this week thinking about the film’s relationship with music, and musicals.

“A Star is Born” (the fourth version of a story made in 1932, then as a musical in 1954, and 1976) centres on a singer (an actress in the first two versions) who rises to fame, supported by her love-affair with a professional in her field, whose career begins to plummet as her star rises. It is both a story about the difficulty of achieving and keeping fame in an industry that destroys you and about a love across genres and dispositions. This new version, directed, co-produced, co-written and co-starring leading man Bradley Cooper, seems to have its finger more on the pulse of the love-story than the music industry.

It’s a warm film – the embers of love that join country-rock star Jackson Maine (played by Cooper) and ingénue Ally (played by Lady Gaga) are manifested in the formal aspects of the film, which all echo a comforting warmness. Most noticeable is Matthew Libatique’s cinematography, which privileges colour; there’s a recurring fiery redness that envelopes either Cooper’s falling star or Lady Gaga’s rising star in a hue that dazzles and warms. Even when the familiar story hurtles towards its tragic ending in the final act, the audience is still enveloped in warmth. In this iteration, the star-maker’s regard for his star never seems borne out of jealousy or contempt; instead he remains earnestly love struck throughout. When I saw the film at the Toronto International Festival last month, I left thinking about the way it seemed disinterested in commenting on its musicality. The recent awards’ announcement had me thinking about it again. Does the focus on love over industry predicate the film’s competition in drama or was I reading too much into this?

The meta-narrative of this latest “A Star is Born” like the three previous iterations, seems key. Janet Gaynor, in the first version, had won the first Best Actress award by the time she played the ingénue; Judy Garland was struggling with alcoholism by the time she played the wide-eyed Esther Hoffman; and Barbra Streisand’s rock version (often maligned but more thoughtful in its departure from a nubile star in many ways) seems a commentary on her own star, pronounced by the infamous title-credit that ends the film – “Ms Streisand’s clothes from…her closet.” Cooper’s directorial debut follows in that light, casting pop superstar Lady Gaga as Ally, who makes her way to the top of the stratosphere. In this digital age, we are even more privy to the private lives of celebrities than before—access that immediately affects and bends our belief in the mythmaking that tends to come with fame. And “A Star is Born” depends on the proximity of its audience to Lady Gaga’s own fame. The film’s press tour has seemed to emphasise the relationship between the more demure Ally of the film and the Lady Gaga (aka Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) of reality. Or “reality.” The fact that the congenial warmness of “A Star is Born” has made way for a minor critical battle, with camps pro the films populist congeniality and those unimpressed by its schmaltzy competence, is somewhat tiring to witness in an awards season that seems bound to get tiring. But I suspect that the pages of writing on the film and what it means are not just indicative of myopia of the critical intelligentsia with an eye on legacy or awards, but a more intriguing commentary on the way the film invites consideration via its real stars and their fictional avatars.

It was why I was excited to catch the film when it opened in Guyanese theatres this week, removed from a festival atmosphere. The chatter during previews proved me right as I heard whispers of “Can Lady Gaga act?” and “I love her music.” Gaga’s celebrity pull will inform a key aspect of anyone’s relationship to the film. For the fans and non-fans, it offers a new iteration of the chameleonic Lady Gaga, and even subconsciously seems likely to affect our reading of the film. Celebrities playing celebrities inevitably make one consider real-word implications. The film and its press tour beats the gong of authenticity (the story of Cooper wiping off Gaga’s makeup in an audition to see the true her – a scene out of the 1954 version) has earned conflicting reactions but mimics the film’s own interest in authenticity. In a key scene, as Ally’s star seems firmly about to rise, Jackson hugs her close and tells her to dig deep inside herself and always show the true her. People may not be listening forever or for the right reasons but it’s up to her to ensure she’s giving them the real her. The true her. And, it’s that question of authenticity vis-à-vis pop music.

For despite this brief edict on holding on to truth, and despite numerous shots of filled arenas and pulsating guitars, “A Star is Born” always seems slightly removed from really assessing the music industry it represents. Each time a pronouncement on stardom or music is suggested the film seems to abandon it for the purely humanistic. And yet, if a film invokes the question of legitimacy and authenticity in an industry, it seems natural to read whatever the film offers as commentary on that industry. And it’s here that the music is key. Jackson’s rock-influenced country-style dominates the first half and Ally finds her success touring with him. Even as she devolves into less noticeably country music (a solo number “Always Remember Us This Way” is her most moving vocal work, whereas the early duet “Shallow” is the most effectively photographed and edited sequence), it is never completely removed from a sort of singer/songwriter aesthetic that suggests authenticity. Early this week an old interview with Mariah Carey resurfaced where she spoke about her career. She mentioned the lack of respect she’s gotten. Despite writing all of her hits (other than the ones that were covers of older songs) she’s never seen as a real artist because she doesn’t play an instrument. And although she doesn’t say it, one can infer because her musical aesthetic moves beyond singer/songwriter acoustics into an urban pop that it is less valued for authenticity. 

Seeing that interview this week seemed essential to my reading of the second half of “A Star is Born” as Ally comes under the wing of a British producer, Rez, who exudes smarminess. With new hair, a new sound and backup dancers, Ally’s act changes and the genre divide between her and Jackson is emphasised in an SNL-performance of the hip-gyrating “Why Did You Do That?” as he looks on in ambivalence. Whether or not the song is bad is secondary; what’s clear is that for Jackson she has lost her authenticity. And the film never gives us Ally’s perspective on this, forcing us in some ways to read between the lines. And to read what’s given, it seems pointed that Ally’s urban output is less musically thoughtful than either the country-rock or more generically neutral adult pop songs. Jackson’s country songs, especially the often reprised “Maybe This Time,” evoke god and existentialism through thoughtful metaphorical assessments. As Ally evolves under his wing, her pop inspired soft-rock speaks of their love for each other and her sense of self (the song “Look What I Found” employs this best). Under Rez, her urban output is about…butts. We all love a good bop about body-parts but the limited space the film offers for urban pop (in 2018 when commercial pop and urban pop offers worlds of thought) seems odd, and even more bizarre when read against Gaga’s own career as a pop star, built on theatrics and fame while being authentic.

In this way, Gaga’s presence, a chameleonic performer known for her excess not as distraction but as part of her authenticity, ends up both adding to and detracting from the film’s textual implications. An authenticity marked by no make-up and smoke and mirrors is its message. An early, sensual sequence, where Jackson removes Ally’s fake eyelashes is text not subtext: show us the “real” you, it tells us. The film promises the tale of the birth of a star and yet it is strangely demure about who the real Ally is. What is Ally’s sound? What is Ally’s voice? We never learn her last name, even. Ally’s sound shifts depending on whether she’s under the tutelage of Jackson or Rez, but her lack of vocal distinction seems like a commentary on itself when the star who is being born seems a musical cipher. But, then, maybe despite the soundtrack the music isn’t the story. “A Star is Born” isn’t a musical, but a drama featuring music. Its central story warms, but its ruminations on the industry at its centre seem less benevolent.

A Star is Born is now playing at Princess Movie Theaters and Caribbean Cinemas

Email your responses to Andrew at almasydk@gmail.com or follow him on twitter at DepartedAviator.

 

 

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