A Star Is Born
Before the film review, my background focus on its star. I love the work of Lady Gaga, up to and including the fluorescent brilliance of her album Artpop (2013). It coincided with an important period in my life, a year of upheaval when I realized I wouldn't live to please the norms of others anymore. Gaga's album was a sci-fi orgasm, full of small details on garish, mellifluous canvasses: an affirmation to go crazy and treat your life like art. If I could compare one movie to it – the kind of movie Gaga would excel in – it would be Thor: Ragnarok, a similarly funny, high-camp colourful piece of fantasy. Lady Gaga is the perfect other-worldly, light-hearted, beautiful, larger-than-life persona that would fit into the Marvel universe.
But Gaga has moved away from Artpop, always looking to try new things. This is part of the problem for me now: I liked her highly produced cyborg pop, I liked the just-beyond persona, the ever-changing façade. I didn't need to know what went on beyond this façade, the façade was everything. But after Artpop Gaga produced Joanne (2017), a stripped down style of self-expression with a different kind of singing. The album as a whole feels raw, the songs under-produced and under-written, there's also a harshness to Gaga's voice at times, it's there in fact at the end of Artpop in Dope, a song I find unlistenable. Her Netflix documentary too, in giving us the stripped down Gaga behind the mask left me with an oddly empty feeling. Perhaps this is the sensation that most would feel at that Wizard of Oz moment, when the curtain is pulled back and the icon is exposed in all their banality. But I also feel that some manage 'stripped down' better, while others excel most with smoke and mirrors.
And so to A Star Is Born (2018), a movie directed by and starring Bradley Cooper. Paradoxically, actor/director Cooper is the more believable rock n' roll star in this movie, his voice attractively smooth and growling, his guitar play expressing an emotional physicality. Gaga, meanwhile, sings as she does in her album Joanne, sometimes coming over harshly, in a way that made me feel: I would not listen to this at home.
Given that the film is a kind of musical, the fact that Gaga's singing made me flinch was an indication of the film's limitations. About the story, the film arguably tries to squeeze in too much at too fast a pace. Gaga's character is no sooner 'discovered' by Cooper's established rock star than she's offered a private jet ride to his concert and invited to sing a song in front of a sell-out stadium. An agent immediately wants to represent her; soon enough there's talk of her winning a Grammy for Best Newcomer. These narratives have been kind-of-done before, where a person with potential is languishing in obscurity and given a (second) chance in life: Rocky (1977), My Fair Lady (1965), Pretty Woman (1990). But in these films, the hero/heroin only truly comes into their own towards the end, at the film's climax. In A Star Is Born, the star has already made the big time halfway through, her relationship with her 'saviour' rushed through to the point where you wonder: Why did they get married? Why do either of them care when the relationship goes wrong? Why, in fact, should I care? Not enough has been constructed to make Gaga's success, or her relationship with Cooper, something to worry about. Arguably it's an American-Idol-style success story for the 21st century where anybody can be anything if you dream enough. And then win awards, months after your emergence. But the whole thing feels plastic and unreal.
If the story feels too rushed, I also felt the journey through various genres disorienting. We start off seeing Gaga doing cabaret in a drag bar. Soon after she's singing rock with her future hubby, then weeks/months later, is doing highly processed MTV dance music videos to banal disco. At one point, we see Cooper watching her uneasily, as if the genre is not to his liking. I felt the same. Even Bowie (and for that matter Gaga) didn't switch genres this quickly in their career. Again, the development is crammed in to a degree that's difficult to appreciate.Yet this isn't to say that A Star Is Born is a poor film, given its ambitions to craft a fame-related fairy tale. It's glitzy and has its tender moments, not least the ending, when I felt tears come to my eyes. But the tears that I felt were for Bradley Cooper's character; Gaga as his foil is just too much the super star, at home in stardom, for me to worry about what happens next to her. In truth, there's something invincible about Lady Gaga, a would-be Marvel superhero wrongly located in this ostensibly personal journey that feels just too impersonal.