Sunday, March 31, 2019

Supernova: Of Combustion and Cosmic Matter on the Big Stage

A Star Is Born is a story that seems destined to be retold as long as a single Hollywood producer has even a single dollar left to their name. It makes a certain kind of sense; like most people, people in Hollywood like to talk about themselves. There's a reason movies like The Artist and Birdman tend to get a lot of recognition come awards season, and it's the same reason the dicks of every man you know get a lot of extra attention on lonely Friday nights at home alone. The masturbatory urge isn't self-destructive or antisocial, rather it is as comforting in its familiarity as it is reassuring in its final, inevitable result.

Each iteration of A Star is Born is built on a foundation of anxieties unique to Hollywood and the entertainment industry in general. The 2018 version follows the same mould as its previous versions as far as basic plot points go: a male music superstar, Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), mumbling his way through life one sold out show after another has a chance encounter with an struggling, female singer, Ally (Lady Gaga), they fall in love, he helps catapult her to success, their relationship goes through a rough patch, his own star begins to fade, he dies tragically,  and she moves forward through the grief while honouring his legacy.

At a surface level, A Star is Born is a romantic drama, but at its heart, it's a retelling and reinforcement of a core part of Hollywood mythology. In an industry and a profession where success is as fleeting and as fickle as it is difficult to attain in the first place, it makes a certain kind of sense that fame would be integral to its lore.

In the 2018 version of the story, Jackson is a country music superstar at the height of his fame. He literally can't walk two steps without somebody coming over to talk to him, or asking for an autograph or a picture, or simply just snapping pictures of him without even asking his permission first. With Bradley Cooper both starring and directing, one can't escape the pseudo-autobiographical commentary in the film at this level. Honestly, my first instinct was to bristle a little at this, as it seemed a little too on the nose, but I actually appreciated it once I had time to digest. As much as celebrities are in the public spotlight and do have an added level of responsibility, they are also people, and the same basic common courtesies and respect should still apply.

Ally, on the other hand, works a menial job at a hotel while moonlighting as a singer at a local drag bar and writing her own songs in her spare time. She's also trying to kick off a music career, but to no avail due partially to her appearance, having apparently been told by some low-level producer that her nose was too big. Again, this seems to be a small window into life in "the biz," where there' so much emphasis on the right look that small variances from some arbitrary standard of beauty can potentially be interpreted by some as an insurmountable obstacle to making it big. Of course, there could also have been a racial subtext there, with the stereotype of large noses typically being associated with Jewish people, though it's not really touched on, but in context, antisemitism and other forms of discrimination are likely par for the course as well in the entertainment industry. Which is also certainly true of most any industry you can name, and now I've made myself sad.

The thing to note is that these two star-crossed lovers are at depicted to be at exactly polar opposite ends of the fame spectrum when they first meet, which is by chance as the alcoholic Jackson runs out of booze in his car after another successful show and stops randomly at the bar where Ally is performing that night. It's made abundantly clear just how different their lives and outlooks on their shared passion of singing are. Jackson is at the height of his power. He loves to sing, but he's disillusioned about all the other baggage that came along with the fame, and it feels like at the beginning of the film he's really just going through the motions. His alcoholism and worsening tinnitus seem like constant reminders of the inevitability of his own eventual decline into that great undiscovered country (Sokovia?). Ally hasn't tasted success, so she's still passionate and idealistic, and just wants to sing for the sake of singing.

They obviously make a connection, and Jackson quickly whisks her away to one of his upcoming shows. She's led not just backstage, but literally stageside where Jackson mumbles something romantic and drags her out to perform one of the songs that she'd sung for him on their first meeting. From there, it's a whirlwind as Ally becomes increasingly more famous to the point where a sleazy music producer (Honestly, is there any other kind portrayed in films?) signs her on as a client and immediately starts to transform her into a flamboyant pop star reminiscent of Lady Gaga. The metanarrative dramatic irony here is layered on so thick that the audience can't help but choke on it. I'm not sure what to make of Lady Gaga playing a character that eventually morphs into a movie version of Lady Gaga, being criticized by her on-screen husband as selling out and trading substance for style and glory, and then being awarded a Grammy for best new artist which the real-life Lady Gaga was nominated for but never won. And what's more, the filmmakers don't seem to know what to make of it either, because it's one of several truly interesting plot threads that's never really touched on again in any kind of satisfying way, or at all (including the idea of maintaining integrity in the face of pressures to conform to a certain public image and the issues leading up to Jackson's eventual suicide, which seemed kind of out of the blue despite that one scene earlier where he mumbled something to his therapist at rehab about a failed suicide attempt at the age of thirteen).

The only consistent thematic throughline in the film is how consistently Jackson continues his downward decline just as surely as Ally reaches heights of superstardom hitherto unheard of. I use the term "consistently" lightly in this case, because it's never made entirely clear that Jackson is on a downward trajectory in terms of fame until the movie kind of clumsily tells us by having Jackson replaced as headliner in a musical tribute to Roy Orbison by some other younger, less mumbly, more popular singer that the audience is never mentioned before the Grammy scenes or after. Ally's rise was documented a little better, but Jackson was uber famous in one scene and then the next he's portrayed as being just one member of a band (the horror!), but still still performing at the Grammys, which I guess means he's a has-been? I don't know, because it's a a little muddled and at first just seemed like the movie was trying to portray it as a massive blow to Jackson's pride.

It's not insignificant, though, that the final transference of the essence of fame takes place during one of the high holy days of the music industry. (During which time one sure as shit doesn't go bowling.) Roughly the music industry equivalent of the Oscars, the awards ceremony is essentially the equivalent of a religious ceremony, in this case the Cult of Self. In the world of A Star is Born, there must apparently must be a Highlander-style transmission of power. As Ally is in the middle of her acceptance speech, an obviously intoxicated Jackson stumbles up and interrupts her, eventually pissing his pants in front of the audience of his peers at the ceremony and the dozens of viewers at home.
Vocal warm-ups and rehearsals are for punks. Real performers
sing from their hearts and strained vocal cords.

From this point forward, it's made pretty clear that Jackson's career is on a severe decline, if not entirely over. Jackson checks himself into rehab as Ally prepares herself for a European tour. I'm not sure why wetting his pants is supposed to be career-ending; all he really had to do was wait a couple weeks until Kanye West said or did whatever crazy shit he's bound to say or do that will draw media attention away from him then follow up with an appearance on the The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

But the mythology upon which A Star is Born is built that envisions fame as a finite quantity. Just like any mythology, there are rules:

  1. Since fame is a finite resource, there can only be so many famous people at the same time. That means that in order for one person to become famous, another must relinquish their fame in equal measure.
  2. Fame comes with many benefits, but also extracts a heavy toll. That toll may be paid by sacrificing one's integrity as an artist, physical health, and/or interpersonal relationships with family and friends. All other pleas and offerings made to the gods in place of these sacrifices will be ignored.
  3. A transfusion of fame requires a temporal bargain with the gods; unlimited power for a limited time. As Bladerunner put it, "The star the burns twice as bright burns half as long."
The Hollywood mythology of fame is very much like the Thunderdome: Two men enter, one man leaves. From an anthropological perspective, A Star is Born is intensely fascinating. It's a window into an incredibly isolated and exclusive subculture. The commentary the film makes on the celebrity condition is as plain as the nose on Ally's face. Of all the places it could have gone, all the places it seemed to want to go, A Star is Born is ultimately revealing look at the psyche of the entertainment industry. It attempts to serve as an indictment of how fame transforms people's lives, but instead only serves to reinforce the power of fame as some mythical entity or essence. 

This is actually to the film's credit. In the end, A Star is Born serves as neither a warning nor absolution. It is ultimately a modern myth, regaling us with tales of celebrities, a very specific breed of gods and titans living unimaginable lives and completing inconceivable labours both great and terrible. There's something satisfyingly myopic about those embedded within the Hollywood culture trying to critic that culture without the distance and perspective necessary to do so, and something intensely entertaining about seeing a modern mythology being laid out in such painstaking detail and with such commitment. 

The 2018 version of A Star is Born is an unintentional modern epic, made all the more entertaining for what it reveals about the lore that Hollywood has built about, which is ultimately a much more deeply layered commentary than any of the personal drama at the core of its narrative. "Maybe it's time to let the old ways die," Cooper's Jackson sings at several points throughout the movie, and it seems to serve almost as a refrain for the movie as a whole. I wholeheartedly agree with him; this new mythology is at least as entertaining as anything the ancient Greeks cooked up.

The Verdict

I have to admit that I enjoyed A Star is Born a lot more than I thought I would. The acting and singing was spot on. Bradley Cooper's half mumble / half growl that he used for Jackson was one of my favourite choices, in that it felt "real." Lady Gaga also shone, but it's not really surprising as she's known at least as much for the persona she created as much for her music. Putting her musical career in the perspective of performance art not unlike the WWE and professional wrestling where Lady Gaga is a character and part of the act, it's not hard to see how those skills would transfer to the big screen. Ultimately, I don't think that this was a film that was targeted toward my demographic, at least the marketing certainly didn't make it seem that way, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, despite all of its flaws in terms of some jarring storytelling beats and a lack of thematic focus. Overall, I give A Star is Born a 7/10 = One Gloriously Bearded Head Mumbling a Country Music Ballad to a Sold Out Crowd


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