I have never been a fan of Lady Gaga’s music, although I must admit that she is a very talented musician. She is, I believe, one of those rare artists who, despite having recycled various images from various other outrageous pop and rock stars (Madonna, Marilyn Manson), is writing her own material instead of having an army of producers behind her success, which I respect.
Lady Gaga has been recently quoted as having said that she wanted to be an actress first and singer second. Although I am more than slightly envious of her talent as a singer, I must say she has convinced me much more with her abilities as an actress. Her choice of feature debut is an appropriate one, which has given her room to showcase her talent as a musical performer, with the added bonus of stripping away all the Lady Gaga layers and artifices that her ‘little monsters’ are so used to. She is laid bare in front of us and what we see is genuine and genuinely moving.
A Star is Born is in its fourth incarnation and probably its most visceral since that hair-raising dressing room speech in the 1954 version. The film, directed beautifully by Bradley Cooper in what is surprisingly his directorial debut, follows the well-known Star is Born narrative (legend has it that it was inspired by real life marriage between Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Fay): established star has a drinking problem and he’s on a downward trajectory when he meets aspiring star who turns out to be his soulmate.
Lady Gaga plays Ally, the aspiring star in a way that makes you forget she’s the super mega pop star half the planet idolises. She is convincing as an insecure singer-songwriter who, despite dreaming big, won’t sing her own songs and thinks her nose is too large. When country singer Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) meets her at the drag queen show, she is performing La Vie en Rose, a homage to the great French singer Edith Piaf. Only after spending some time with him does she confide in him and sing one of her own compositions, in what may be one of the most romantic scenes ever to take place in a parking lot.
The romance is tumultuous, marred by drunken stumblings that translate into full on arguments, but ultimately the love between the two rises above Jackson Maine’s inner demons, at least for long enough for the two to marry. Ally becomes the successful singer Jackson had predicted she would become, soon carving a name for herself, independent from that of her husband. It’s important here to highlight that the musician Ally aspires to be and ultimately becomes is a very different one from who Lady Gaga is as a musician. Unlike Lady Gaga, Ally is shy, less ambitious and has to be convinced to believe in her own values as an artist, which is why Jackson’s role as mentor is all the more important.
The narrative isn’t forced, despite playing slightly like a Cinderella story. It has enough humour, heartbreak and naturalness to pull the “this could never happen” element off. My only criticism is the added element of Ally’s manufactured star persona. The film hints slightly at her having sold her artistic integrity for fame when it shows us an orange haired Ally performing an R&B style song, half naked on SNL, but doesn’t follow that idea up any further. I believe the story was already rich enough without suggesting that Ally’s star image wasn’t what she wanted, but what was imposed on her from a manager with dubious intentions. At the same time, one might argue that without Jackson’s guidance, she wouldn’t be strong enough to stand up for herself and the type of music she wants to make.
I shall not spoil the film for the 1 or 2 people who aren’t familiar with the narrative, but it’s a rollercoaster of emotion, harmoniously performed, directed and shot. No wonder Lady Gaga found it so hard to shake the character off at the end of the day. As an added bonus, Sam Elliot’s in it.