Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder
A Star Is Born: The Same Sad, Soulful Song
Written Review by David Carter
What follows is a sentence I never imagined I would ever write:
In a scene within the final tear-inducing act of Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, A Star is Born, Lady Gaga (playing the eponymous “Star” Ally) and Sam Elliott (playing Cooper’s brother, Bobby) sit and talk about Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine’s musical philosophy. Elliott sits and espouses that Jackson believed all music was just twelve notes played over and over again in different octaves. Jackson maintained that those twelve notes only really became special when the right person arranged and performed them. He believed that everyone has some sort of talent but we get too caught up in the looks and persona’s of it all to take notice of those doing something truly special.
If that isn’t a thesis statement for a film that’s been remade three times in wildly different decades with its current iteration from a first time director, then I don’t know what is.
For all the great memes the wonderful trailer inspired, for all the head scratching the casting news brought when it was first announced, and for all the grousing that was made about Bradley Cooper’s career arc and his choice to seemingly play his version of this character as Scruffy the janitor from Futurama mixed with the leariness of late-period Nicholson, the movie manages to be more than just a play at awards gold (although it certainly will get some of that- if a PR disaster doesn’t rear its ugly head) and actually manages to be about something. It’s a movie about why we’re so attracted to certain stories over and over again, even though nothing about them really changes outside of a superficial level. What a story it is.
A Star is Born is one of the quintessential American tragedies, in that it’s a love story based around The American Dream and how choosing fame as the vehicle for that dream is always going to poison you and the way you love those around you. The basic premise has changed little between adaptations, with some minor details tossed into the mix. It’s always about a struggling and down-on-her-looks young female performer meeting an older, on the decline, alcoholic or drug-addled male performer. They fall in lust, then in love. The older man sees the potential and raw talent in the young woman. He gives her the grandiose gesture of the spotlight and the young lady proceeds to launch into stardom. The older man’s career fizzles out even faster and his vices become worse. He hits a rock bottom by embarrassing the young lady on the night of her biggest triumph which sends him on a journey to recovery. However, the young lady cares too much for her love to see him go by the wayside. So, she talks of jeopardizing her career to take care of him. This leads the man to make one more tragic final decision to make sure he doesn’t drag her down with him.
With each film the story updates with the time. The look of the film changes from the big bawdy classical Hollywood epics of 30’s and 50’s to the New Hollywood aesthetic of naturalism in the 70’s. The occupations of the performers change from actors to musicians, and the circumstances and supporting characters change based on need. Yet, the one thing that never changes is the inherent subtext of the story. It’s not just about rocketing stardom and fading fame intertwining with human folly and ego. Instead, it’s the story of a man who had talent and artistry settling for fame, and indulging in all the vices that fame brings him. He tries to redeem that mistake by giving someone (less burdened by their own demons) the chance to retain their talent and artistry because he legitimately cares for them. Combine that with the above-mentioned idea of the American Dream and you have a story about fame and artistry colliding, leaving the destruction of vulnerability in its wake.
That’s what each of the narratives come down to at some point. They come down to two people struggling to be vulnerable not just with their audiences but with each other. Cooper as a director understands this and leans into it. This version is about the male character’s broken psyche from misplaced hero worship in his past, more so than any of the past narratives. It’s crippled Jackson as a functional person and leads him to make impersonal art, which is why he gloms onto Ally so readily. She writes songs that are open and poetic but she’s too scared to put her true face out there in the world because so many people have told her she doesn’t look the part. Jackson tells her that all of that doesn’t matter and it makes all the difference.
While that may not be the most earth-shattering revelation a story has presented, it comes back to that idea Sam Elliott talks to Gaga about. The music to an extent is all the same, but the performer makes it come alive. Bradley Cooper, for all that remains unseen about what he can do after this, made a story that’s been told four times by name (and countless times analogously) come alive in times where vulnerability is something that we could use more of.