A Star is Born

Exploring the power of art

A Star is Born movie posterA Star is Born is a well-worn entry in film lexicons, with the fourth remake of the original 1937 film hitting theaters earlier this month. This latest version of the tragic love story—which Bradley Cooper produced, directed, shares screenwriting credit for and stars in—premiered to overwhelming critical acclaim and praise for everything from the performances and music to the screenplay and direction.

Cooper’s A Star is Born is not only an outstanding remake worthy of its Oscar buzz, but also a thought-provoking exploration of the power of art, and revelation of self and truth through it.

Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a famous country singer who stumbles into a bar where waitress and singer-songwriter Ally (Lady Gaga) is performing. He’s memorized by her voice and performance, and the two simultaneously begin both a romantic relationship and musical collaboration.

He enjoys watching her grow and come into her art. She loves creating and singing with him. They are a force to be reckoned with because they have, as Jackson puts it earlier in the film, “something to say and a way to say it.”

It’s almost like their music is a language all unto itself. As we listen to their songs, we gain deeper insights into their souls, love and relationship than from their conversations. (Interestingly, the film’s soundtrack includes bits of dialogue interspersed with the songs as if the music itself is an essential, if not loftier, part of human conversation.)

He enjoys watching her grow and come into her art. She loves creating and singing with him. They are a force to be reckoned with because they have, “something to say and a way to say it.”

But, true to the tragic plotline of the past versions, it doesn’t last. A sharp, eagle-eyed manager hones in on Ally with a vision for where her talent could take her, and she starts to transform from the raw, soul-full performances on stage with Jackson to a wildly popular pop performer complete with back up dancers, choreography and costumes.  Jackson feels like Ally is not only slipping away from him but leaving him behind—which he makes more likely by his own self-destructive behavior fueled by his drug and alcohol addictions.

Some critics see Ally’s transformation into a pop artist as the market’s stranglehold on art while others see it as viable art form. One critic, commenting that each generation sees the evolving music scene of the next generation as false and foreign, suggests that how we see Ally’s transformation depends on the generation we were born into.

I suppose this film can give us all that, but whatever your take, Cooper’s version definitely shows us that art can tell us things about ourselves and others in a way nothing else can.

In her NY Times profile of Cooper, Taffy Brodesser-Akner laments that he isn’t answering any of her questions about the personal experiences he brought to and reflected in the film. But after viewing the film another time, she realized something.  By not answering her questions, she says, “he was just telling me that I’m asking the wrong questions. He could tell me about his sobriety. He could tell me about what his father’s death meant. He could tell me about his baby and his relationship. But that’s just information. If you really want to know him, you can’t sit with him and ask him. You have to watch his movie. You have to feel it. You have to be willing to accept answers that are spiritual and not literal.”

This theme is woven throughout the film. At one point, Jackson’s brother Bobby (Sam Elliot) reflects “how music is essentially 12 notes between any octave. Twelve notes, and the octave repeats. It’s the same story, told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer the world is how they see those 12 notes.”

Art reveals how we see ourselves, others and the world in a way that explanations and conversations cannot—and that theme alone might have been enough to make a good film. But Cooper goes even further, exploring how things like fame and success, the wounds and demons we lug around from our childhoods and problems with addiction can derail us—and keep us from living authentic lives and participating in healthy, loving relationships.

The way Ally and Jackson deal with those things, however, is starkly contrasted at the end of the film. (Stop here if you haven’t seen it yet and then read the rest after you have.)

The ending is powerful, not just for the loss that we can’t help but grieve but also for the choice that Ally makes to let it strengthen rather than derail her.

In her final performance, we watch Ally transform again. She exhibits the soul-full lyrics and voice of her on-stage performances with Jackson but her performance is honed and mature, and she owns the song and the stage without the choreographed performance of her dancer-backed performances. And with that last look directly into the camera, we see that she now owns herself, too.

Bottom line, Cooper’s A Star is Born is more than a good remake about a tragic love story. It is a foot-tapping and moving piece of art about art and artists and what they both can tell us about ourselves and the world we live in.

A Star is Born is rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse.

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