Film Review: Surrendering to Feeling in “A Star is Born” (2018)

Warning: Substantial spoilers for the film follow.

I went into the most recent version of A Star is Born with great trepidation. I’ve seen both the 1930s and 1950s versions, but have steered clear of the 1970s one because of its notoriously bad reception. However, something drew me to this one. Perhaps it was my long-standing love of Bradley Cooper’s beauty or my queer appreciation of Saint Lady Gaga. Or perhaps it was hearing “Shallow” come on my Sirius XM and feeling profoundly moved by the performance. 

Whatever it was, something drew me in to see this film, and I have never looked back.

Unsurprisingly, this film follows the narrative pattern of its predecessors: ingenue and aspiring (musical) artist Ally (Lady Gaga) is discovered by country-rock star Jack Maine (Bradley Cooper). Very quickly, her career begins to overshadow his, and he begins his descent a descent into addiction and despair that ultimately results in his suicide. The film ends with Ally singing in her late husband’s memory.

Fortunately for me, I was prepared for the ending. I mean, it is A Star is Born, and so you sort of know how the whole thing is going to end up. The one thing that remains the same in every iteration of the story is Maine’s decision to end his own life rather than continue to drag his successful wife down with him into his own private darkness. Nevertheless, it still felt like a gut punch when Jack takes his own life by hanging himself with his belt–a method that had failed him when he was a teen but has now become devastatingly effective. 

What surprised me as I watched the film was how easily I was overwhelmed by feeling. How was it possible, I wondered, that I could be so invested in a story whose ending I already knew? At least part of this is due to the star power of Cooper and Lady Gaga, both of whom positively ooze charisma. Gaga proves that she has the acting chops to convey vulnerability, while Cooper, with his rakish good looks, serves as the ideal embodiment of a country rock star struggling with his own inner demons.

Yet it is also due to how deftly the film handles the feelings of its characters. Some of this stems from the soundtrack. I dare you to listen to songs like “Shallow,” “Is that All Right,” and “I’ll Never Love Again” without being reduced to an absolutely soggy mess. Of course, we all knew going in that Lady Gaga is one of the most talented musicians of her generation, but MY GAWD. Her performance of the film’s finale (I’ll Never Love Again”) drew sobs from me that I didn’t even know were there. Admittedly, I’m very prone to weeping during melodramatic films, but even as I was watching that final performance I was astounded by just how much feeling was being wrenched from me at this moment. It was one of those rare occasions when my entire body and soul seemed to be caught up in the currents of emotion on the screen.

An equally strong part of the powerful feeling of this film, however, comes from the film’s willingness to display men showing emotions other than anger. Bradley Cooper manages to convey Jack’s genuine sense of remorse at the shame he has brought Ally, and when he breaks down and weeps while in rehab it’s hard to maintain your own composure And let me tell you something, there is nothing that will make you weep like seeing Sam Elliott–the paragon of a certain type of western/cowboy masculinity, who plays Jack’s brother –tear up after what turns out to be his last parting from his brother. Emotional response aside, it really is refreshing to see straight men allowed to be outwardly expressive of feelings other than rage and violence.

At the formal level, A Star is Born is a remarkably intimate film. The camera frequently moves in for tight shots of its characters, and it its movements are graceful and fluid. As a result, we are constantly drawn into the world of these characters, invited to inhabit their states of feeling. By the end, it’s hard not to feel the same pang of loss that Ally does, as we nevertheless experience the soaring, exquisite joy of her ultimate success. 

Sometimes, you just have to give yourself up to the pleasures of feeling.

 

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Tracks for the Trump Era: “Perfect Illusion” (Lady Gaga)

I’ve decided to launch a series of blog posts about songs that we can listen to in order to help us deal with the advent of the Trump Era. To inaugurate these, I’d like to propose that Lady Gaga’s bitter, raw song “Perfect Illusion” is indeed the perfect song for this era of woe and rage.

The lyrics, certainly, help to give expression to the sense of disillusionment that many of us have felt this past week. After all, isn’t America itself the perfect “perfect illusion,” something that appeared beautiful and wonderful, something that we loved. We were poised, after all, to deliver a resounding defeat to not only Donald Trump, but also the ugly political movement of which he was the leader. There were times when I dared to imagine the entire conservative ideology swept away in the rising tide of millennial progressivism.Furthermore, we had come to believe that American society had at last become a safer space for many people, or at the very least it was moving inexorably toward progress. Black Lives Matter. Obergefell. A living wage. On both the economic and social fronts, it really seemed like we were making genuine progress, that somehow the Obama Era was really the beginning of a new world, a world we now believed was possible and was the future. Somehow, it seemed that all of the darker forces of the collective American id had at last been suppressed and banished into the past.

A perfect illusion, indeed.

At a deeper, more affective level, the song’s aesthetic also taps into a profound sense of rage, betrayal, and disillusionment that many of us on the Left have felt as we have watched the America we thought we believed in shatter in the face of a tide of right-wing bigotry. Somehow, the breaks in Gaga’s voice and the screaming instrumentals help us to feel a similar sense of rage and despair, that the things that we took for granted were the very things that ended up betraying us. It’s hard not to feel your body respond to the rawness in her voice. The imperfections of her delivery give affective expression to our own sense that the world we thought we saw hovering on the horizon was nothing more than a figment of our own imagination, that somehow we have been betrayed by the very people that we thought we could count on. The very idea of America that we had created in our minds was as ephemeral as gossamer.

So, whenever you’re feeling that familiar emotion of despondency and despair, just tune in to some Lady Gaga. If you’re anything like me, this song will galvanize you and enrage you enough to keep marching in the streets, to keep protesting, until we force the arc of the universe to bend toward justice. Let those percussive beats that punctuate the end of the song serve as the drumbeat of our relentless pursuit of a better, more verdant world. We have been beaten down before and emerged triumphant, and we shall do it again.

We shall make our illusion a reality.