For a long time, I never thought of Lady Gaga as anything but an act. By this I mean, she was all gimmick, no substance, more focused on the persona she presented than with the music she performed. Although her music was fine, her shtick so far overwhelmed it, I always felt she was covering for a lack of vocal talent. Then in 2015, she appeared completely stripped down (no weird outfits or heavy makeup) at the Oscars to sing a beautiful rendition of “The Sound of Music.” It was clear she was an extremely talented vocalist, and it made me wonder why she’d spent so much time hiding behind a mask. A Star Is Born, the newest remake of the film made famous by Barbara Streisand (which itself was a remake), in some ways mirror’s Lady Gaga’s rise to fame and how she may have felt when she herself was coming up in an industry obsessed with appearance.
Ally (Gaga) works at an undisclosed company without any distinction for what she does. It’s a clear nod to the fact that she is simply another cog in the wheel; an unknown in a sea of unknowns who in the long run don’t really matter to you, me or anyone. Every so often, Ally will perform at a local drag queen pub where she used to work. She’s the only actual female they’ll allow to sing on stage because they admire her talent so much. One night, Jack (Bradley Cooper), a fading drunk superstar, stumbles into the bar and is instantly smitten with her. They strike up a conversation, get into a bar fight, and learn about one another in front of a grocery store with a bag of frozen peas tied to her hand.
In that fated parking lot, Ally sings Jack a song she’s been working on, which entices him to invite her to his next show. She’s reluctant to go at first, but as her father (Andrew Dice Clay) points out, this could be an opportunity she’ll never get again. Once there, she’s instantly pulled on stage to sing that very song. From that moment, she, and the world, are hooked. Jack is a very selfish character, though, and as Ally becomes more famous, he tumbles down into a depressive state, turning to booze and drugs to drown out his pain and jealousy, all to the detriment of the career he initially helped build. But because the two sincerely love each other, they do everything in their power to support one another and be there when the other falls, no matter how deep.
This is Cooper’s directorial debut and he does a wonderful job at using the camera to emphasize each of these character’s stories. It’s most apparent when the two are performing on stage. With Jack, the camera is always a little behind him as he sings, never showing his full features to the audience. Shaky and uncommitted, the camera reveals how the character is feeling on the inside; a broken man — once at the top of his game, now hiding behind a wall of self-loathing — attempting to find his center, but unable to because of the path he’s chosen to take.
On the other hand, whenever Ally is on stage, the camera is smooth and steady, always (or at least the majority of the time) front and center, keeping her confidently in focus, mirroring her own emotional core. She starts the film in self-doubt, feeling she isn’t good enough because her nose is too large, or because people will be put off by her appearance, but once she’s on stage, it’s clear that’s exactly where she’s meant to be, leaving the whole idea of her overall image moot.
Both leads are clearly passionate about this project and deliver the strongest performances of their careers. It helps that the supporting cast, which includes Dave Chappelle, Greg Grunberg, Anthony Ramos and Ron Rifkin, rise to the level of their leads to truly support the message that sits underneath them. No one is stronger, though, than Sam Elliott as Jack’s brother, Bobby. Together, the two share a deep, thunderous drawl that not only makes them feel related, but which goes a long way to link them as both partners and opposition to one another.
At one point in the film, Bobby tells Ally that nothing Jack has done is her fault. It’s not his fault, or anyone’s; it’s all his own fault. And that goes into what this film is about. It’s about dealing with other people, falling into a place of insecurity, dealing with the weight of fame, and mixing all of that with your past and how to reconcile it all in a livable stew. Everyone wears at least one mask in certain circumstances, whether they want to admit it or not. When Ally’s manager (Rafi Gavron) starts to change her appearance to make it more “acceptable”, she embraces it because she doesn’t know any better. Jack is the first to tell her that fame is fleeting; just because people are listening to what she has to say now, doesn’t mean they will always be listening, and that if you hide behind the mask to often, you’ll lose the authenticity of your voice, your message and your truth.
But this message runs so much deeper, especially within Jack. Over the course of the film, we learn a lot about Jack that speaks to the idea that people who are trapped within themselves, or have found the mask so overwhelming that they aren’t able to get out from behind them, lose the ability to speak their truth, and in so doing, others, including and especially the ones you love the most, are unable to hear them the way they need to be heard. I initially wrote Lady Gaga off because of the masks she wore, but now that she’s found her way out from under them, she’s become a true force to be reckoned with.
My Grade: A
I wasn’t all that interested in Venom when I first saw the trailer, so what a surprise that the film actually rose to the occasion, expertly mixing some terrific action with sly humor, making a statement that the character is ready to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe big boys club in future iterations. A
Next week, new movies include First Man, Bad Times at the El Royale and Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.