A Bittersweet “Star is Born” for the 21st Century

Amy Kellestine Reviews “A Star is Born”

The latest “A Star is Born” is a fresh take on a well-worn and well-loved story. Originally on the big screen in the 30s, and again in the 50s and 70s, the concept won an Oscar when it debuted. This version, written, directed, and led on screen by Bradley Cooper, had some shining moments but was ultimately problematic for me.

In this version, veteran frontman Jackson Maine (Cooper) is a superstar on the stage, but struggles with addiction. One night, while on a hunt for a drink, he “discovers” Ally (Lady Gaga) singing the quintessential Edith Piaf song “La Vie En Rose” at a drag bar after her shift in the service industry. She’s resigned herself to life on small stages, her passion a hobby that keeps her sane. Jackson convinces her to step into the spotlight—as well as into a relationship with him. However, as Ally’s career takes off, Jackson’s career slides in the opposite direction, he sinks further into addiction, and their relationship cracks under the stress.

Lady Gaga’s big screen acting debut

The overall lineup was unexpected, but ultimately well-cast. Pleasant surprises included Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s opinionated, brash, supportive father; and Sam Elliot in the role of Bobby, Jackson’s patient and nurturing older brother. Dave Chappelle even made an appearance as one of Jackson’s longtime friends. Cooper is very believable in his role, with a raspy voice to match Elliot’s, and the swagger of someone who knows he’s famous and can get away with whatever he wants. He and Gaga definitely have musical and emotional chemistry and while Gaga’s musical prowess clearly shines through, Cooper’s singing voice is a pleasant surprise. Their duet “Shallow” is pure awesome and the soundtrack is lots of fun overall. Unfortunately, Gaga’s acting debut was promising, but uneven. At times, moments that should have gripped me emotionally left me thinking, “Well, that was odd.”

I appreciated how realistically the film portrayed the complexities of addiction for loved ones. Bobby and Ally clearly love Jackson, and their anguish at his self-destruction is palpable. But Bobby gets so annoyed at being Jackson’s caregiver that he walks away from his responsibilities as his manager, and Ally vacillates between setting clear boundaries and causing chaos in her own way.

That said, the painful and codependent dynamics are a far cry from expectations set by the trailers for the film. The first half of the movie felt aligned with the cute lovebirds portrayed in the trailers, but the second half, where Ally’s and Jackson’s connection disintegrated in slow motion, was emotionally exhausting to watch.

Another issue with the plot arose for me in the way Ally is “discovered” and is transformed from an authentic singer-songwriter to a pop culture icon—complete with a makeover and backup dancers. I found myself personally annoyed at how she got exploited by music producers more interested in selling millions of records than honouring her creative voice and producing quality music. Jackson fought this transformation, but briefly and ineffectively. The film ended up reinforcing a damaging message that we have to conform with unrealistic and superficial standards set by others to be accepted and successful. It’s painful to consider that this continues to be a reality for many in the music industry.

“A Star is Born” had a lot of moving pieces including a tragic love story, an addict’s fall from grace, and a new musician’s rise to fame. Unfortunately, while the casting and songs really worked for me and the plot was true to the realities of addiction and the music industry, I found that the moving pieces never quite landed into a cohesive whole.

Amy Kellestine headshotAmy Kellestine is an educator, engineer, Arati life coach and entrepreneur living in Edmonton, Alberta. She spends her free time camping, gardening, and volunteering for causes such as Cystic Fibrosis and nature conservation. She is a devoted mother and is passionate about helping others and writing.