Hitting the right note with 'A Star Is Born'
You probably already know how the story goes. A famous musician, Jackson (played by Cooper), falls in love with a struggling singer, Ally (assayed by Lady Gaga), and helps her launch her career while himself battling with alcoholism. Maybe you have come across one of the three previous renditions of A Star is Born. Or, perhaps more likely, you have watched Aashiqui 2 — Bollywood’s 2013 uncredited remake of the same. Yet, the story, originally penned in the 1930s, feels far from being hackneyed.
While its earliest film version, made in 1937, had an aspiring actor and an assistant director at its centre, every subsequent adaptation revolves around two musicians. With substance abuse still being an unfortunate scourge of the music world, the story continues to resonate.
A Star is Born takes flight thanks in part to the sure-footed direction by Cooper (who is making his directorial debut with it). In many moments, the film feels like a behind-the-scenes music documentary. The camera follows the musicians like it would in a vérité non-fiction film. It is in this regard that the film is way different from its earlier versions — especially from the ones made in 1954 and 1976 which played very much like classic Hollywood musicals. Owing to this difference, many moments in the film feel raw. Even the songs sound like live performances rather than having been recorded in a studio and stuck on top of visuals.
Cooper manages to show in these songs that not only does he have a knack for direction but for singing too. The star of the show, however, is Gaga. The real-life pop icon is expectedly sensational in musical sequences but A Star is Born is also a landmark moment in her career as an actor.
Unlike Barbra Streisand (female lead in the 1976 version) and Judy Garland (female lead in the 1954 version), Gaga does not have what are deemed traditional Hollywood leading lady looks. The film-makers have made a deliberate choice to highlight this, making the actor look as plain and make-up free as possible. This is because the character of Ally struggles with her appearance and has been told that, while she has the voice of a great singer, she does not look the part.
The story of her body image issues is told beautifully not only in writing but also in the framing of the film. We see her reflection in many shots throughout the running time yet she never looks at those reflections.
The first meeting between Jackson and Ally perfectly sets up their respective struggles: the woman’s with her appearance, the man’s with substance use. They meet at a gay bar where Jackson has ended up only because he needs a drink and the stash in his car has run out. Ally is performing there as a drag queen, hiding behind extravagant makeup, complete with fake eyebrows.
Ally immediately catches Jackson’s attention as she mesmerises him with her soulful rendition of classic French song, La Vie en Rose. The two first speak when Ally is taking off her make-up backstage. “The whole point is, I can see your face,” Jackson says as he takes off her stick-on eyebrows.
Such symbolism continues as the film proceeds.
When Ally starts to make a name for herself, a celebrity photographer is hired to take her photos. “That doesn’t even look like me,” she exclaims as she looks at the portraits. Her tone is unmistakably complimentary.
As her fame increases and audiences around the world start to recognise her, she becomes increasingly unrecognisable to Jackson. Her hair turn orange, her clothes become cutesy and quirky. Even her music becomes generic; her breakout hit is about text messages to boys. The director is able to bring all these elements together in a powerful single moment: by showing the two look together at a giant billboard of Ally. What they see is not real Ally but her glamourised persona. The intensity of the situation is heightened when Jackson advises her to sing from the heart and say something valuable while people are still listening.
What makes Gaga perfectly suited for the role is not only her skill as an actor but also the fact that her own music career serves as an obvious subtext to the film. She is certainly familiar with the pressures that make singers turn to mindless pop ballads that Ally initially sings. In fact, she has commented on this phenomenon in her 2013 hit song Applause. “I live for the applause ... Live for the way that you cheer and scream for me,” goes the chorus. “Pop culture was an art, now art’s a pop culture in me,” she croons during the song.
Seeing Ally hide behind a glamorous persona also becomes intriguing when you consider that Lady Gaga is of course not the artist’s real name. She, too, has a carefully constructed image like that of the character she plays (even though Ally’s is a more by-the-book pop singer look). One of Gaga’s initial claims to fame was her love for high fashion statement garments. Arguably her most famous look was a raw beef dress she wore at the 2010 Video Music Awards. The singer, though, eventually started to consider these elaborate looks a hindrance to her music. “It becomes about everything else, and that was what I [once] wanted. But if I wear a black T-shirt and black pants every day, [people] might listen to what I write,” she once told an interviewer. When she slowly stopped dressing eccentrically, even that was deemed a statement. A 2016 article in Vogue magazine called it “The Radical Normalisation of Lady Gaga”.
Towards the end of A Star is Born, Ally lets go of the look created for her by her music producer as she performs a song written by Jackson. It is in this moment that she becomes a real star — looking straight into the camera and not worrying a wee bit about her looks.
While we have seen Gaga, the singer, take the music industry by storm, Gaga, the actor, is just getting started. Cooper does Jackson’s story justice. Like his onscreen persona in the movie, his greatest strength (both as the writer and the director) is letting his co-star shine.
The writer was a staffer at the Herald.
This article was originally published in the Herald's November 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.