A “Star is Born” goes to the heart of what is what is killing music. Technology, commercial interests and over-produced songs have crushed an art form that formerly captured human emotion and elevated the soul.
If video killed the radio star in the 1980s then reality television stomped out any integrity or creativity that remained. Music used to be about personal and collective expression. Now it’s a math formula that selects winners in a musical lottery. If the music’s sound patterns are pleasing to the masses and the artists look good on television, it’s a hit. If not, it’s road kill.
Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is an established country rock star who meets Ally (Lady Gaga) and sees unrecognized talent in her. She doesn’t sing the music she writes and is tormented by an industry that rejects her due to the size of her nose.
Maine encourages her by saying, “Talent comes everywhere, but having something to say and a way to say it so people listen to it, that’s a whole other bag.” Maine shares his spotlight to help promote her.
The main song of the film, “Shallow” starts with Ally’s idea, while Maine provides music and structure. The tune begins with a few simple chords and Maine singing. Ally’s lyrics mirror Maine’s as a single fiddle notes follows her. The bass and piano support the low end of the song as Ally’s raises her voice a full octave to belt out the chorus. Her voice is stretched to its limits creating a sound that is powerful, robust and nearly transcendent.
In making a movie about musicians the most challenging factor is the actual music. “Eddie and the Cruisers” did it by using the music of the little-known John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. “The Commitments” performed soulful cover music and “That Thing You Do” included a few snappy original songs.
For “Almost Famous” some fairly good music was created to drive the story. “A Star Is Born” follows this model and has created songs that are soulfully beautiful.
Maine is devoted to authenticity in music and tries to guide Ally as the musical-industrial complex begins to swallow her. Maine is a deeply flawed and self-destructive, which weakens the moral lessons he’s trying to impart and makes him appear jealous. He warns, “If you don’t dig deep into your f***ing soul you won’t have legs…If you don’t tell the truth out there, you’re f***ed.”
Ally believes he’s jealous and continues to slide into the thing Maine warned her not to be. She ends up singing pop trash with lyrics like, “Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?”
Gaga’s actual name is Stefani Germanotta and she was originally discovered by those hearing her voice, not seeing her looks. She trained in classical music and attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her mezzo soprano singing voice is kaleidoscopic in both range and color; it has been compared to opera singers.
Germanotta seems like an odd choice for the role. She individually created the look and sound of Lady Gaga. Gaga’s vapid music is much like Ally’s once the mass marketing machine gets ahold of her. It’s one-dimensional, superficial and a waste of her actual talent.
Her first three studio albums feature simplistic music and the lame two-four beats of a drum machine. She is known more for her outrageous costumes, hair styles and videos, and less for her music. Gaga is living proof of video killing the radio star.
At heart, though, Gaga is a musician. In an interview she explained, “If I didn’t have the ability to share my songs, I don’t know who I would be. If I wasn’t sitting here with you right now, I would still be in a bar downtown banging on a piano with my high heels on the keys.”
She recognized the quality of the song writing in the movie and how it contrasted with most contemporary music. She co-wrote most of the songs and said:
For me as a songwriter, I couldn’t be more grateful to
everyone I worked with on that project to put that song
into the world. Because I believe that we live in a pretty
shallow time. I think we long for that depth, we long
for that honesty.
In Gaga’s more recent music she may searching for that depth as well. Her work with Tony Bennett and fourth studio album “Joanne,” includes some substance and heart.
Unfortunately, her character, Ally, is flawed from the start. The way she reacts to Maine’s fans is the way an established star, even a diva, might. But her reactions have nothing in common with the regular person she portrays.
Ally confronts Maine after his most serious bender and tells him, “I won’t do this again. Next time you clean up your own mess.” She has clearly drawn a line in the sand when it comes to their relationship.
In the following scene Maine proposes to Ally and she accepts. Their wedding, held the same day, is celebratory and full of love; but sorely lacking in credibility.
The movie has moments of pure grace. It offers object lessons in temptation and self-absorption, originality and compromise, as well as, love and jealousy. The most important lesson is remaining true to one’s self. It’s a lesson lost in today’s music, yet essential to any art that matters.