The Bad Romance of ‘A Star Is Born’

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Women fantasize about fucking musicians the way men fantasize about fucking strippers. There’s nothing wrong with that, but pretending otherwise is what makes A Star Is Born the most annoying kind of movie, one that’s shallow to its core. It’s maudlin slop masquerading as profound art, a film which relies on star power, not storytelling, to engage us. It expects us to care about characters who are all artifice and no substance while simultaneously exploiting substance abuse for cheap emotional reactions.

But what makes A Star Is Born even more vexing is that it has all the ingredients to be a good — maybe even great — movie. We already know Lady Gaga can sing her ass off, but she’s a revelation as an actor. Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of bad boy rock star Jackson Maine is so credible you believe he’s possessed by the ghost of Jimi Hendrix when he’s playing guitar and you can practically smell whiskey-laced sweat soaking through his clothes when he’s been drinking. Cooper also displays mad technical skills as a first time director. And Sam Elliot shows up doing that thing only Sam Elliott can do. But all this A-list talent is wasted on B-movie schlock. Coyote Ugly (2000), another fable about an aspiring singer/songwriter, is far more satisfying than this version of A Star Is Born — and it packs a stronger feminist punch.

Over and over, A Star Is Born tells us that real artists, the ones who make it, the ones who have staying power, are true to themselves and have something to say. Yet Lady Gaga’s character Ally is a singer/songwriter who has nothing to say. Thus, she sells out the first time a man promises her fame and a record deal. She has no integrity, no inner compass. She eagerly transforms from someone who sings heartfelt ballads into a performer of soulless dance numbers. More distressingly, Ally only gets that big break after sleeping with another man in a position of power. Long live the patriarchy, the film implies. The only way to get ahead is to give head. That’s a horrible message to be sending women.

But it gets worse. Jackson Maine — the powerful man who Ally beds to further her career — is drunk almost the entire movie; many times he’s intoxicated to the point of belligerence. This is lazy writing, a hackneyed attempt at pathos. When alcoholism is the only source of tension in a story, it reveals the writers as unimaginative cowards. (In this case, those writers are Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters.) If you want to make a movie about the horrors of alcoholism and addiction, so be it. But be honest in those intentions. Don’t treat excessive drinking as a convenient plot device, something you use to inject false conflict into your story because you have no other dramatic ideas. Unfortunately, A Star Is Born resorts to this technique way too often. Movies like Days of Wine and Roses (1962), Clean and Sober (1988), When a Man Loves a Woman (1994), Leaving Las Vegas (1995), and Crazy Heart (2009) are more thoughtful in their portrayal of alcoholism. They don’t exploit the ravages of the disease the way A Star Is Born does, to create sympathy for the diva.

Ally sticks with the drunk Jackson Maine, even after he’s emotionally abusive to her. Since Ally is introduced as a fierce independent woman, this stand-by-your-man bullshit makes their love story hard to fathom, unless you believe Ally is so seduced by fame, money, and music she suffers from Stockholm Syndrome. Possibly, she’s using him. That would make for a more interesting movie, but it’s not the one we get. Instead, we’re given a sexist fairy tale about a talented singer who prefers to live in the shadow of a drunk asshole because they share a dog. Oh, he’s also a MILF: Musician I Like to Fuck. Oddly, it doesn’t seem that Ally even likes the kind of music that Jackson Maine plays, and vice versa. He’s a grungy guitar god while her tastes veer towards overproduced pop pablum.

And that’s the biggest problem with A Star Is Born. You don’t believe for one second either Ally or Jackson Maine would appreciate the kind of music the other one performs, let alone ever listen to it. If A Star Is Born was set exclusively in the world of one musical genre — say hip-hop, emo, alt rock, trance, or heavy metal — your suspension of disbelief would be cemented. You’d understand the spiritual connection between two selfish musicians. That’s what made the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line (2005) work so well. But no. We’re expected believe someone like Eddie Vedder would fall tits-over-ass in love with someone like, well, Lady Gaga. And maybe he would. But you have to work damn hard to make that love connection appear believable on screen, and the filmmaker side of Bradley Cooper never does.

Part of that hard work means showing the ingénue blossoming into a performer whose talent eclipses the moon and sets the music world ablaze. Put another way, if you’re gonna make a movie featuring Lady Gaga as a breakout pop star, you expect to see a fantastic Lady Gaga performance akin to her Bad Romance, Poker Face, or Perfect Illusion videos. You expect to see something outlandish and fun that blows your socks off, or at the very least, something visually audacious like the crazy dress she wore when performing at the 2018 Grammys. Great art doesn’t give you what you expect, it gives you something better. Instead, for Lady Gaga’s grand finale, we’re served up a lame ass love song that’s dripping with all the saccharine emotion of a Hallmark greeting card. After being told for two hours how real artists have something to say, you realize A Star Is Born has nothing to say at all.

Eric Coyote earned his Master of Arts degree in critical theory from the University of Southern California. He writes about movies, Hollywood, and culture.

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