It is disorienting, almost, to watch Lady Gaga play a different role other than, well, Lady Gaga. In her first feature film, A Star Is Born, Gaga plays Ally, a waitress who sometimes performs in a drag bar as Edith Piaf which is how she is discovered by the gravelly-voiced, country-rock star Jackson Maine, played and directed by Bradley Cooper. This is the fourth A Star Is Born, building upon the versions that were released in 1937, 1954 (with Judy Garland), and 1976, the most thematically connected to our 2018 iteration, starring Kris Kristofferson and the imitable Barbara Streisand.
The basic plot threaded throughout all four versions of A Star Is Born is a young, talented woman is discovered by an established male artist and, as she ascends to fame, he starts to fade. Cooper, however, roots these eternal archetypes into the music industry of now. It’s not hard to imagine the success of a country-rock performer (Cooper’s Jackson Maine sounds a lot like The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, which is fine!) or the exciting pop star Ally becomes. It also shows us the delicate contours of public figures falling in love, and then navigating jealousy and the toxicity of relationships while being famous. Yet, the most compelling aspect of A Star Is Born is how it accurately tackles the toxic relationship between fame and substance addiction. Cooper’s film doesn’t romanticize the practice nor admonishes it. Rather, he shows it plainly, in the vein of music films like Almost Famous, Walk the Line as business as usual, which goes to show that despite the leaps and years between these movies, the revolving door of substance abuse and fame feels like forever.
During a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival, Lady Gaga said: “I think fame is very unnatural.” There are, objectively, only a handful of people on this planet who could make that claim and confirm it as an absolute truth. Gaga knows what fame can do, once saying she felt the need to be high to be creative at all. The pressure is to be a money-making machine and more, which often pushes pop stars, Gaga included, to cope via substances—sometimes abusing them out of sheer necessity to exist. Toiling beneath the surface of a pop star’s life are traumas and stories that get exacerbated by this high-speed kind of lifestyle. Gaga’s Ally isn’t the one who disintegrates but she is, in a sense, collateral damage to Jackson’s alcoholism and drug use; hopping the fame train as Jackson is veering toward his own collision.
For most of the film, it’s really easy to write-off Jackson as a kind of casual misogynist who talks down to Ally about her lack of confidence; how, of course, he would be the one to help her career ascend; and that, after it does take-off, his jealousy seeps into the heart of their romance, threatening to poison it. It’s a tale literally as old as time: the inferiority of women in music next to the arbitrary superiority men have handed to them. That is, obviously, not what A Star Is Born is about—Cooper opens that old narrative up for examination, not to be reaffirmed. For it is Jackson’s story, his spiral into himself, that gives us the empathy and insight into how brutal and precisely ignorant the music industry is about the pain beneath the shiny, entertaining surface.
Jackson is drunk for most of the film or taking pills to dull the pain of losing an edge professionally, for not being as authentic as he believed he used to be. But more than anything, it is to numb his very existence, which is the character’s biggest battle. It’s a familiar scene, seeing a male musician turn to substances to cope, and that those around him, like Jackson’s brother Bobby played by Sam Elliott, accept this reality by tucking in the passed out drunk talent rather than provide more substantial life-lasting help. Watching Jackson bury himself in both music and substances—abusing the latter, which affects the former—is a more urgent call to action than not.
I watched this film the morning after news of Mac Miller’s death allegedly by overdose, which made it feel especially heavy. It made me think about how we’re almost at a year since Lil Peep’s passing. How Demi Lovato was recently hospitalized for a supposed overdose. I could keep reaching back further and further for such examples but history is a wasteland of talent and voice succumbed to addiction in an industry that encourages it, rather than heals it. Addiction and fame are woven so tightly together that the friction causes unnecessary casualties. With every passing talent, we lament the evils of substance abuse, improper treatment, and respect for mental health. It doesn’t matter the age, but the younger the person, the one whose life has only been lived but a very small amount, leaves us bewildered how we could ever let this industry do this to our idols—to these human beings. The industry is not good at solving it and it often feels like they never want to solve it. The performance of care is a band-aid solution. (Ally’s manager in A Star Is Born does an excellent, hard-to-watch job of being a shithead executive who sees dollar signs wasted and not a person deteriorating). But the cycle passes and we go on, the key players in the industry certainly go on, in meeting rooms or backstage, making more deals and aligning a sales pitch with talent.
A Star Is Born is a meaningful look not simply at fame but how fame comes with a price. It’s not just the romance between Ally and Jackson that is devastated by addiction—people carry the brunt of these consequences. Cooper inserted the reality of stardom by casting Lady Gaga, a pop star supreme, but also by writing a narrative that is all too painfully familiar to her and perhaps him as well. The obviousness of addiction and fame as a story arc is not rudimentary here. A Star Is Born conveys the tenderness of empathy toward a human, not a persona in a position on a chart. It’s devastating that still, we watch in real time as our stars, our performers, go through the same thing as Jackson Maine. What will it take to stop watching those narratives occur?
Sarah is on Twitter.