‘A Star Is Born’ Doesn’t Have a Clue How Stars Are Born in 2018
Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s bad romance is stuck in the ’90s.
Bradley Cooper has said he was barely familiar with Lady Gaga or her music when he cast her as the female lead in A Star Is Born, his recently released directorial debut. Surely he couldn’t have been serious.
Although her pop star has dimmed in recent years, at the end of the noughties, around the time Cooper also was becoming a household name, thanks to The Hangover, everyone was going gaga for Gaga. She was practically inescapable, whether you loved “Bad Romance” or not.
I found it unfathomable that he possibly could have missed her near-simultaneous ascent until I watched A Star Is Born. Clearly the rock Cooper has been living under is stuck somewhere between 1976, the year the last American remake of A Star Is Born was released, and circa 1999.
Watching the latest A Star Is Born is like strapping yourself into a time machine and turning on the in-flight entertainment. Welcome back to the roaring ’90s, a decade when mogul-guided pop, the kind that Arista head Clive Davis tweaked and tweezed up the charts from Whitney Houston’s rise to Whitney Houston’s fall, ruled the music universe.
I can suspend my disbelief long enough to pretend that a bunch of drag queens and a black bleach-blonde check-out clerk would fangirl over a country-rock superstar who has been kicking around for decades. But does Cooper, who also wrote the screenplay and plays Jackson Maine, the aforementioned country-rock superstar, even realize how a star is actually born in 2018?
Pop careers aren’t launched by Clive Davises and P. Diddys anymore. Svengalis who think they know what the masses want, what they really really want, and shady managers who want to sex up already-gorgeous singer-songwriters are still kicking around, but they’re like relics from a bygone age. Lucrative pop careers aren’t even really made by record labels anymore.
Times have changed immensely since Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera were coming of age — or since Gaga was, nearly a decade later. The two best-selling female artists today are Adele and Taylor Swift. Neither are traditional beauties and neither gained fame performing choreographed pop. In 2018, a singer-songwriter as talented as Ally, especially one attached to a big-name star like Jackson Maine, would have more options than the sort of dance-pop that made, say, Lady Gaga famous.
And while we’re analyzing the star-making machinery, it’s hard to imagine it ever being wasted on a performer who goes simply by Ally. Why change her hair color and her sound while keeping such a generic mononym?
Stars today aren’t born in delivery rooms stocked with choreographed dance moves and hair dye. They’re made on reality TV (the platform that birthed Cardi B) and social media. Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook should be supporting players in any 2018 movie about the making of a pop superstar, but they don’t even get a cursory mention in Cooper’s A Star Is Born. Ally finds out about her three Grammy nominations not via notifications on her mobile phone but through her manager/producer. How quaint.
TV shows like Nashville and Empire recently have captured how the modern music business works so much more accurately than A Star Is Born. I found myself wishing the film had been set in the country music universe or in the world of hip hop.
Or maybe the original story could have been rebooted with the genders reversed, to reflect changed times in which protégées-turned-legends like Cher, Tina Turner, and Emmylou Harris have long outlived and outlasted the men who helped make them stars in the ’60s and ’70s , in which a female singer has the power to launch her own star or midwife the birth of a new one — anything to give it even a passing semblance of 2018.
As Nashville and Empire have so perfectly illustrated, women can be star-makers, too. But A Star Is Born is literally a man’s man’s man’s world, where aside from the cashier who takes Jackson’s photo and two randoms at the fake Grammys, Ally is pretty much the only woman who gets to speak. (Props to Cooper, though, for his otherwise diverse and multicultural cast, which reflects America in 2018 better than the rest of the movie does the music biz in 2018.)
But then, despite the movie’s title, the film isn’t really about the birth of a star anyway. It’s about the flameout of a supernova. It’s more Jackson Maine’s story than his protégée-turned-wife Ally’s. Gaga’s character doesn’t only go by just her first name when she becomes a star. The movie never even bothers to give her a surname until she announces herself as “Ally Maine” near the end. It’s her “Julie Chen Moonves” moment.
I doubt A Star Is Born would be the acclaimed hit that it is without Gaga’s name, talent, and narrative attached to it, but it really is The Bradley Cooper Show. He co-wrote it, directed it, produced it, acts in it, and dominates it. Gaga has gotten raves and Oscar buzz, but everyone already knows she’s a great singer. Cooper does most of the thespian heavy lifting, while when she isn’t singing, Gaga’s job is mostly to react to him.
She meets the requirements of the role, but neither the writing nor her performance gives Ally any layers. It’s basically a stock girlfriend role, the kind that probably would have gone to Amy Adams a few years ago, around the time she was costarring with Cooper in American Hustle.
And let’s not forget how beautifully Adams sang in Enchanted. Any good singer could have pulled off A Star Is Born’s songs, but a better actress might have made Ally more fully rounded, as convincingly iconic as the star who got to play her. Gaga’s greatest contribution to A Star Is Born isn’t her singing and definitely not her acting but her pivotal role in crafting the music that powers it.
While watching, I kept thinking about last year’s Phantom Thread, another movie about a successful man who dominates the life of a younger woman. But in that Daniel Day-Lewis vehicle, the main female protagonist actually had the more complex character arc. We saw the movie through her eyes.
A Star Is Born, however, is propelled by Jackson Maine’s narrative, not Ally No Last Name’s. Although, the film ends with a close-up of Gaga’s beautiful face, we never really get behind her big expressive eyes to see inside Ally’s soul.