Is ‘A Star Is Born’ Great American Myth making Or Cliched Trash? A Debate.
You probably formed an opinion about “A Star Is Born” long before the movie came out. Maybe you were smitten by the remake’s trailer, in which Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga duet in a most epic fashion. Maybe you watched Gaga glide into the Venice Film Festival on a damn yacht or heard the rumor this film would make you feel again.
But be warned, how you felt walking into the theater says nothing about how you’ll feel leaving it.
Despite its relatively straightforward plot ― a tortured male rock star meets an unknown but massively talented female singer, setting off a sequence of events that lead to the downturn of the former’s career and the cosmic ascendance of the latter’s ― “ASIB” is a divisive film. Maybe it’s not a groundbreaking movie, but it’s a ground-quaking one in that its simplest aspects still beg you to overthink them. Since its first screenings this summer, the film has prompted a deluge of polarized reactions and interpretations.
So critics Zeba Blay and Priscilla Frank (a lover and a hater of the film, respectively) felt compelled to sit down and hammer out the film’s thorniest puzzles. Is the romance meant to be campy? Did the story unfairly characterize pop music as less than rock? Was Cooper’s dog believable? Together, they decide once and for all if this buzzworthy movie is worth your $16.25.
Warning: Spoilers below!
Priscilla Frank: So Zeba, hi! Before seeing “ASIB,” you wrote a spot-on ode to its “perfect” (and very meme-able) trailer. Do you feel the movie lived up to the commercial for it?
Zeba Blay: Nope, nope, not really. Ha-ha. The trailer, like I guess all trailers are, really was a distillation of everything great about the movie. Like, all the camp of the trailer kind of goes out the window when you watch the movie, which is fine, but it was definitely jarring. I enjoyed the movie but definitely not in the way that I thought I would. It was a pretty somber affair.
PF: From the trailer, I expected a juicy, over-the-top melodrama, a la “Titanic.” (Do I always hope every movie will be like “Titanic”? Perhaps.) But the movie took itself so seriously, it sapped a lot of the pleasure out of the experience for me as a viewer. I felt like I was watching Bradley Cooper’s Very Serious Auteur Man Director Debut.
I must also note that a very RUDE man was returning from the bathroom at the exact moment Gaga’s “HAAAAAAAA AH AH AH AHHHHH AHHHHHH HAAA AHH HAAA” bit and he blocked my view, throwing me into a blind rage that probably stayed with me until the end of the film. That may sound irrelevant, but I think theater audience vibes really affect how people feel about this movie. Like in my audience, no one was excited for the “I just wanted to take another look at you” moment. I could imagine, if people were cheering and laughing at the line, getting into it. What was your crowd like?
ZB: My audience was DEAD SILENT. It was eerie AF. I kept looking around making sure people hadn’t, like, just walked out. Incidentally, my friend who I was with walked out for about five minutes halfway through the film because it was stressing her out. Which I think pretty much sums it up ― this is a very stressful movie. Some great moments, some amazing singing, but overall stressful as fuck. I kinda liked how stressful it was, though, but then maybe that’s because I live in a constant state of anxiety anyway, so it felt cozy and familiar?
On a scale of HAAAAAAAA AH AH AH AHHHHH AHHHHHH HAAA AHH HAAAs, how stressed were you watching this?
PF: I would say I was feeling very AAAAHHHHH!!! just because I wanted to love this movie so badly and I didn’t at all. Maybe I was too hopped up on all the hype. But when I realized I was not into it, then started actively hating it, I felt agitated by the whole situation. (I was in Times Square on a Sunday, so I had given up A LOT to be there.)
The first time I batted an eye was when Ally punched that stranger in the bar because he politely asked Jack for a photo. It seemed so implausible that she would lash out like that over something so minor. The rest of the film paints her character as so caring and level-headed, so it felt like an unrealistic reach to suddenly say she’s not like other girls or something. I think over-the-top expositiony moments like that can work if the film has a campy or melodramatic tone, but this movie, I think, took itself too seriously to pull silly stunts like that and get away with it.
I very much enjoyed the internet debate of whether the movie is campy, but after seeing it, I perceived no camp whatsoever. Where do you fall on the camp/no camp debate?
ZB: Yeah, there’s no camp. Unless Gaga is singing. I think the movie does this really interesting thing of toeing the line between corny, mainstream Oscar bait and that artsy indie aesthetic with the shaky cam and improvised lines. I kinda liked that aspect of it. It’s just a very weird movie. For me, so many things about it didn’t work, but what DID work was Lady Gaga, who kind of held up the film with her earnestness and her star power even when it started to kind of lose me.
And I’m just gonna say it and get this out of the way: I’ve never found Cooper particularly attractive, but he was fine AF in this movie. There. I said it.
Was there any part in the film that you really loved? That quelled the rage for a bit?
PF: I agree, Cooper normally doesn’t do it for me, but I would let Jackson Maine rub a baked good in my face any day. His gravelly voice teetered between that of a sexy cowboy dying of thirst and an incomprehensible garbage disposal, but his charm magnet was very effective.
I did love parts of the movie. Any time Gaga sang was magnificent. Her chemistry with Cooper was sparkly and sexy, especially at the beginning. Andrew Dice Clay as Daddy Gaga was delightful. Oh, and Gaga’s orange hair made me want to buy Manic Panic pronto!
There were definitely good moments, but all in all, I felt I was watching a never-ending montage of played-out rise-and-fall-of-musician tropes that didn’t grab me emotionally. (Am I a monster?!) I just felt the lead characters were ultimately cardboard cutouts of music cliches without any nuance or originality. And the depiction of life as a contemporary pop star wasn’t at all as outrageous or opulent as I wanted it to be. (Her costumes and dance moves were very meh.)
I guess my question is, actually, am I a monster? I feel like I’m the only person I know who didn’t love this movie. I normally cry at almost any vaguely sentimental movie, TV show or commercial, so I was shocked when I felt nothing at the end. Did you feel emotionally wrecked?
ZB: I wouldn’t say I felt emotionally wrecked, but I definitely felt emotional and reflective. And yes, I cried. The movie wasn’t necessarily as camp as I expected, and so those moments of rawness hit me in a much more visceral way. I think there’s something to be said for movies that run on pure emotion or melodrama without being camp. Like, the film was incredibly earnest in its depictions of love, betrayal and addiction. There wasn’t an ounce of cynicism in the movie, which surprised me.
I think it’s tough to do justice to stories of addiction on screen that don’t feel exploitative or just plain unrealistic. I know there has been some criticism of how the movie handles addiction, but for me, I think there was this certain underlying quality of watching not only Jackson Maine but Cooper, the actor, reckon with his own addiction and sobriety. This movie is so overblown in some ways but then in others so deeply personal, and I think that’s what made the not-so-great parts of it sort of recede for me. What did you think?
PF: I think what prevented me from personally connecting with the characters was how cookie cutter they felt. Jackson’s drunken antics, his dismissal of Ally’s pop direction, his jealousy and insecurity ― it all felt so predictable and monotonous. (It made me think of that movie “Walk Hard” with John C. Reilly, which mocks music biopics like “Walk the Line.”)
And Ally was not totally fleshed out as a character. (The fact that she didn’t have a last name before Maine says it all.) I didn’t understand the kind of music career she wanted for herself and whether her vision matched up with reality. As for their love story, I thought they both really delivered, acting-wise, but Jackson was such a dick, it was hard for me to root for them together. Even in the “romantic” moments, like when he proposed with a guitar string mere minutes after fucking up majorly because Dave Chapelle told him to. And then they get married that day in Memphis without any of Ally’s family or friends! That is my nightmare.
How did you feel about Ally’s character and the way the film portrayed her pop career? Did you think it was realistic? Who, if anyone, do you think her style was modeled after?
ZB: OK, I’m glad you asked this, ’cuz it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot since seeing the movie. Ally’s shift to pop seems to come out of nowhere, but that’s only because, other than the “La Vie en Rose” performance (which was mostly just her playing a character), we see Ally’s artistry only through the lens of Jackson. When she goes pop, Jackson’s (and maybe the audience’s) first inclination is to assume she isn’t being authentic to herself. But who’s to say she isn’t? I think Ally’s journey to truly becoming a star isn’t just about choosing her orange-haired pop side or jeans-and-a-T-shirt country side but navigating the ways in which those are both a part of her.
In that sense, I thought it was a realistic portrayal. “A Star Is Born” doesn’t refer to Ally’s first big performance or even her makeover or her Grammy win but to that last frame, where all her experiences culminate in one song, a song that in many ways is still very pop and mainstream. I think there’s a sense that artists cannot be good or authentic or even talented if they sing pop music, but Lady Gaga is a testament to the fact that that’s not true.
That’s where we see Ally end up by the end of the movie ― being authentically herself without caring about whether she’s selling out or keeping it hard core.
PF: That’s beautiful, Zeba! I definitely agree that pop musicians can be authentic and artful, I just think the movie could have made Ally a more interesting and dynamic pop artist or at least shown us more about how she feels in terms of the direction her music is going. It would have been so fun to watch her play a more Gaga-like character instead of this kind of meh, bland artist who seems to be begrudgingly doing whatever her manager tells her. But I agree that the last song does show her coming into her own, becoming the artist she was meant to be. Although, personally, I think the film’s title refers to Cooper’s (real life!) dog, Charlie.
My favorite non-“Shallow” song of hers is “Healing.” It kind of has a Carly Rae Jepsen “E·MO·TION” vibe. Would grind to that at a middle school dance, for sure! (To be clear, as a middle schooler myself.)
I want to know your favorite song, and I also want to ask about the setting of the movie. There has been some talk on Twitter about how early scenes in the film (“La Vie en Rose,” Ally’s house) seem to take place in and around New York rather than LA and how that was kind of disorienting to watch. (Also, the question of why Ally took a helicopter to Jackson’s show at the Greek Theatre when she was coming from downtown LA.) Did the setting bother you at all?
Sorry to come at you with this ceaseless negativity.
ZB: Favorite song that’s not “Shallow”: “Why’d You Come in Here With an Azz Like That?”
As for the geographic setting, that didn’t really bother me or even register for me as much as the time setting. Like, this movie feels totally out of reality in terms of what year it is. Yes, there’s technology and YouTube and cellphones and shit, but it still feels weirdly anachronistic. Which I think kind of works for it. There’s just this very early-to-mid-2000s feel to it, which seems appropriate. And I think the ambiguity of what year it is lends to the timelessness of this story about fame that has been told over and over and over again. It’s basically American mythology at this point.
So I guess in that sense, the haziness about the location adds to this overall feeling that we’re watching a kind of parable. The story of “A Star Is Born” can be set in any time, any place and still resonate. That’s kinda cool.
PF: That’s a great way to look at it. I had the opposite reaction. Like, if you’re going to tell this story over and over, I want to see how the passage of time affects the story and the people involved. How is being a star in 2018 different from 1976 or 1954? I wanted more technology and more trendy style, like Barbara Streisand rocked in her day.
I love what you said about the story being American mythology, which I think is true. But at the same time, that made me question why we keep having to tell ourselves a story we already know so well. Is there any story more painfully rehashed than the egotistical, tortured male artist and his ingenue? Do we really need to spend more time ogling famous people and watching simulacrums of the Grammys and “Saturday Night Live”? When people were praising Alec Baldwin “so accurately” introducing Ally on “SNL,” I was just like, is the bar so low?
Why do you think people feel so compelled to remake and rewatch this story over and over again? Because after watching “ASIB,” I really have no fucking idea.
ZB: To be perfectly honest, I think what makes the “ASIB” story interesting has never been “ASIB” itself but the meta quality of the narrative on its stars. Each remake has served not so much as a commentary on fame or even the art of being a star as much as a commentary on the people who star in it.
Every remake has starred a queer icon in need of a kind of reinvention or a comeback. Every remake, also, has basically been a not so thinly veiled grab for an Oscar. Which I think is fascinating. The Ally character had to be played by a star like Gaga. I think that’s what makes this story worth rehashing and rewatching ― not what it necessarily says about the culture but what it says about the star. And in this case, I think the film is really playing with fame, yes, but especially Gaga’s relationship to fame (which in itself is fascinating) and, parallel to that, Cooper’s desperation for and disgust with accolades, applause and validation.
What do you think about the casting here? Do you think a different duo might have been better?
PF: I loved the casting. Their chemistry, stage power and humor were the most redeeming parts of the movie. I guess it would have been interesting to have something other than white, hetero stars as the lead couple, but aside from that, I thought they were really cute and successful in making this movie a cinematic event as important as “Star Wars.”
It might also be fun, in the future, to switch the male and female roles so the woman is the veteran mentor and the man the budding talent. (I’m available for consultations.) My fantasy lead would be FKA Twigs, now that she’s officially an actor. And for the man, maybe Adam Driver as an emo rocker?
ZB: That would be great. Or maybe Jake Gyllenhaal? Mahershala Ali?! I love the idea of flipping the genders of the characters, by the way. Sometimes gender flipping can feel arbitrary, but it would be interesting to see how power dynamics would look if the already famous character was a woman. Or just someone who doesn’t navigate the world with an inherent sense of power, if that makes sense. But as the current movie stands, I really like the idea of Gaga, the bigger star, playing an unfamous person opposite Cooper, not nearly as famous.
OK, one negative that irked me: that they felt like the only real characters. Everyone else, especially Gaga’s best friend (whose name I can’t remember), felt so superfluous. Which is maybe the point? But it still bothered me.
PF: Hard agree. I felt the same way about Jack’s brother, to whom I’ve seen dudes on Twitter form an intense emotional man-ttachment. He seemed thrown in there purely to speak oh-so-very slowly in Hallmark card platitudes. And I thought the whole side plot with Jackson’s dad was very undersketched. Not that I wanted more. I thought the whole thing could have been cut easily.
How did you feel about Jackson’s death? Were you surprised? Did you find it plausible that he would spend his final moments preparing a steak for his dog?
ZB: CW for suicide: I wasn’t surprised, I guess because I knew it was going to happen, given previous iterations of the story and given the fact that Ally’s manager essentially tells him to kill himself in an earlier scene. But it was still a really fraught and hard scene to watch. I found it really beautifully shot and acted. I think, right up until the last minute, Jackson isn’t 100 percent sure whether or not he’s going to do it. So he cooks the dog a steak before he leaves, even gets into the car, starts it, begins to drive to the show. In the garage, even as he’s holding the belt, he’s clearly grappling, turning it over in his mind.
I think that’s the most heartbreaking thing about it, that struggle in putting off what feels inevitable. That said, it did bring up weird feelings about what it means to be an addict or to be someone who deals with suicidal thoughts ― this question of inevitability. The movie sets up this idea that for Ally to truly become a star, Jackson had to die. Which is just ... really sad. Do you think this story could ever work with the Jackson character living?
PF: Yeah, dude. They could have just broken up! If he thinks his death is going to help Ally thrive in life, that’s some toxic, messed-up garbage. I’m not sure the movie would have been as much of a success at the box office, but I would have been cheering. Yes, I am volunteering now to pen the next “ASIB” installment with robots, FKA Twigs and a surprise happy ending.
Last question: All things considered, would you recommend the movie to someone else?
ZB: Yes, most definitely. I think for all its faults, it’s a really interesting piece of pop culture. I’m already hounding my friends to go watch it a second time with me — this time drunk.
What about you?
PF: If you enjoy being part of the cultural conversation, I guess you should see it, even though that’s $16.25 you will never get back. At the very least, don’t go to Times Square to do so.
Blay, Zeba, and Priscilla Frank. “Is 'A Star Is Born' Great American Mythmaking Or Cliched Trash? A Debate.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 15 Oct. 2018, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/a-star-is-born-great-american-mythmaking-or-cliched-trash_us_5bbb8d33e4b0876edaa07e7a.