A Star is Born samples black, queer, and immigrant experiences like items in a buffet, but it fails to delve deeper.
By Yaël Ksander
It’s an old-fashioned story with a lot of familiar elements, but we just can’t seem to get enough of it: rock and roll cowboy meets unconventional beauty from the wrong side of the tracks; amidst pills and booze, there’s wild success and inexorable descent. A Star Is Born has enjoyed at least four turns on the marquee over the last 80-plus years, but there’s a profound poignancy to its resurrection in 2018, almost two years into Trump’s regime, a year into the #metoo movement, and deep into discussions of toxic masculinity against the backdrop of a generation of underemployed men finding refuge in opioids and isolationist politics.
Played by a more-rugged-than-usual Bradley Cooper, Jackson Main is introduced to us on stage, basking in the glow of a festival crowd that clings to him all the way to the limo. Fans still stuck to the windows, our hero takes refuge in the back seat with a bottle as the driver maneuvers through the crowd. When the bottle runs dry, Jackson has his driver pull over when he spots a watering hole. Recognizing Jackson on his way in, the androgynous and ethnically ambiguous doorman suggests that this might not be the star’s kinda place. In other words, partner, This Ain’t Marlboro Country.
But Jackson settles in amidst the sequins and ostrich feathers, and this endears him to us. He’s cool. (Or maybe just thirsty.) The drag show will feature a special act this evening, he’s told, and because we’ve rehearsed this story a few times, we know that it’s going to be Lady Gaga, and that he’s going to fall for her. But if we think about it for a moment, how is she even his type? For someone who codes pretty darned straight male, wherein exactly lies the appeal of this creature, channeling some of the most sexually fluid moments of 20th century culture with her Piaf tune and her Weimar brows? How, for starters, does our hero, after all those drinks, decipher the elaborate construction of this drag: a woman playing a man playing a woman?
It’s a richness that doesn’t get explored. And that turns out to be a tragic miscalculation, both for the film, in its quest for greatness and for our hero, in his quest for healing. To quote its big, powerful hit song, the film gets mired in “the shallow” tropes of the Hollywood rom-com, while grasping for deeper, more complex, and certainly more relevant identities and situations. The kumbaya of Jackson’s comfort level in the gay bar lures us into thinking that this version of the ASIB franchise has been thoroughly steeped in 21st-century mores and values – until that veneer is ripped off along with Ally’s (Gaga’s) eyebrow back in her dressing room.
It’s not an intentionally violent act; quite the contrary, it’s presented as a step toward intimacy. “I know my mind is made up,” to use the logic of the great bard Sting, “so put away your make-up.” No sooner does Jackson inquire whether her brow is real than he asks to remove it. Ally acquiesces, only to recoil and cover her denuded face with her hand. The confident performer withdraws into a frightened shadow without her mask; indeed, the first time she emerges completely démaquillée after agreeing to join Jackson for a drink after the show, she waits behind the curtains while he serenades the queens (yet more proof of this cowboy’s cool). The dramatic irony of our knowledge that she is Lady Gaga, rarely seen sans drag, adds suspense to the anticipation of her presentation to Jackson. “You look beautiful,” old-fashioned viewers might murmur, “he’s gonna love you.” Even the more jaundiced among us have been convinced by this seemingly reconstructed good ol’ boy that nakedness equals authenticity, that the essence is revealed once the layers have been removed.
The kumbaya of Bradley Cooper’s comfort level in the gay bar lures us into thinking that this version of the ASIB franchise has been thoroughly steeped in 21st-century mores and values – until that veneer is ripped off along with Lady Gaga’s eyebrow back in her dressing room
A doctrine that privileges the simple over the complex, the direct over the oblique, the homespun over the contrived, this myth of authenticity has had remarkable staying power in the American narrative. Take popular music, for example. Think about how those fans called Dylan “Judas” when he plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival. There’s just something wholesome about a feller singing a song he wrote, accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar and maybe a harmonica. Although the electric guitar did ultimately gain passage, this symbology of authenticity has held such sway in popular Western music for the last 50+ years we hardly question its authority. Or the fact that its standard-bearers are white and male, and its origins Anglo-Saxon (with some blues licks copped off the African-American tradition). Its normalization as the signifier of sincerity drowns out a lot of other music, through the implication that these strains are somehow effete. Which is how we got to that ignominious moment in 1979 when 50,000 guys emerged from their parents’ basements to explode a pile of disco records in the middle of Comiskey Park. Of the damage incurred by Disco Demolition Night, White Sox pitcher Rich Wortham commented, “This wouldn’t have happened if they had country and western night.”
With its synthesized sounds, relentless rhythms, disposable lyrics, and an emphasis on its performers’ glamour, disco posed a distinct alternative to rock-n-roll’s earnest, organic aesthetic in the 1970s. But historians suggest that the vehemence with which disco was demonized may have had more to do with its demographic origins than its formal qualities. Taste is never that innocent. New York’s late 70s nightclub landscape was, from all accounts, nothing if not ecumenical with regard to race and sexual persuasion. Whitewashed for the mainstream with Saturday Night Fever and the hits in 4/4 that every band from the Rolling Stones to the Grateful Dead was incentivized to produce, disco was incubated in the black, Latinx, and gay scenes. A highly mannered aesthetic, disco performance may have relied on conventions, costumes, and masks to convey its meaning as a legacy of those origins, and the code required to operate as a subculture. To borrow a term from cabaret culture, there is a safety, and a freedom, in wearing a mask: Maskenfreiheit.
Ally’s own orbit is similarly removed from the bourgeois. From the club where she works and performs, to her gay BFF and the drag queens she’s got on speed dial, to the working-class home she shares with her (ostensibly) Italian-American father and his band of racially diverse chauffeur buddies, hers seems to be a thoroughly multicultural 21st-century urban experience. When we get a glimpse into Ally’s bedroom, we notice a framed copy of Carole King’s Tapestry hanging on the wall. The cover of the album is iconic in its unpretentious realism: the natural woman in her natural milieu. The multi-platinum record foregrounded King’s voice and her simple accompaniment.
But King’s origins were in the Brill Building, cranking out songs for the Hit Parade. One of the songs on the album, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” debuted as the first number one hit for an all-black girl group in the U.S., a feat that feels downright conspiratorial in 1960 considering also that it was a song interrogating the gender-based sexual double standard written by a Jewish teenager who’d gotten pregnant out of wedlock. Another one of King’s originals on Tapestry had first known life as Aretha’s hallmark: “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” A Jewish woman who wrote songs for African-Americans that were sold to the masses, King occupied a cultural space where pop music and the more respected singer-songwriter genre were as cozy as she and that cat on the album cover. Maybe Ally too?
And why not? It’s 2018, and a lot of us, even the rock-n-rollers, have gotten more heterodox in our musical taste. If we’re, admittedly, a little weary of the guitar hero, Jackson’s own ambivalence about the role convinces us of his sincerity. “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,” he croons to the queens in the club. The song is reprised two more times over the course of the film. This is revisionist rock-and-roll, we’re persuaded, so we give him a chance. His willingness to share his spotlight with Ally as she joins his act further disarms us. Hey, this guy is a real feminist! Without a streak of makeup (but tarted up nonetheless in country-western’s own formidable drag) Ally enjoys a picturesque partnership with Jackson until she gets offered a deal of her own. The would-be manager hooks her by suggesting that she has something unique to share with the world. Speaking your truth is this flick’s shibboleth. Jack takes Ally’s news begrudgingly. His jealousy comes as a shock to her, as much as to us. This sensitive new age guy isn’t as cool as we had hoped.
As Ally’s career as a pop star takes off, Jackson’s own declines (which may have to do with his escalating substance use and tinnitus, sounding an ever-loudening refrain inside his head that, if it were set to words, might just echo the rallying cry sounded last year in Charlottesville: “You will not replace us.”). The music Ally is making progressively incorporates the artifice of her first performance at the drag club, while in her home life, those origins have been reduced to a small neon sign hanging over a door protesting “La Vie En Rose,” appearances notwithstanding. Having originally encouraged Ally to perform her own songs, Jackson is not a fan of the music that’s putting her on the charts. In one scene he drunkenly ridicules her while she bathes. Having originally encouraged her artistic stripping down, when she’s actually naked in the tub he only takes advantage of her vulnerability. It’s a painful reprise of a previously joyful tub scene, in which Jack lets Ally stroke his lashes with mascara while they soak. In the end, it turns out to be a temporary makeover.
Jackson’s growing sense of irrelevance manifests itself as desperate, dramatic monologues and gestures that effectively banish the film’s last shreds of believability once and for all (admittedly, this is a Hollywood musical). Moments before Ally heads out for her first show of the tour, amped after Skyping with her besties from the club and basking in the glory of her stories-high face on a billboard, Jackson delivers a buzz-killing soliloquy about the importance of staying true to oneself. It’s hard not to imagine Ally’s inner monologue after the addled soothsayer lays his ancient wisdom on her: “Um, okay? Headed out on my world tour now. You do you. Next time, how about ‘Break a leg’?”
Another Hail Mary of a scene resorts to the device of a Wise Person of Color (a stock character Spike Lee has anointed the “Magical Negro”). Having passed out on the side of the road after his gig in Memphis, Jack is discovered by his old friend George (Dave Chappelle), who hauls Jack’s ass back to his home for some straight talk and sobering up. They go way back, we learn, and we get the sense that George has had his own rough years. Stable now, with a beautiful wife and a pack of kids, George tells Jack that happiness may simply be a function of flexibility. Give something new a shot, and let that be your reality, George suggests, like this new gal who seems to be making you happy. In other words, “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.”
The magic dust George disperses prompts what could only be described as a fantasy sequence where Ally suddenly shows up, Jack twists up some guitar string and slides it on her finger, and George calls his cousin to open up the church and marry ‘em up. I’m not sure if the Reverend Al Green played the preacher, or Aretha Franklin led the choir, but they may as well have in the ensuing wedding scene that feels more of a piece with Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again than a sort of biopic that’s trying to make a big point about authenticity. Needless to say, the foray into the black community of Memphis works like a stint at rehab: momentarily transformative, but ultimately ephemeral. As it turns out, having a black friend, and even getting married in a black church, can’t save you any more than having a drink in a gay bar.
So we return to the film’s, and our hero’s, fatal flaw: the premise of multiculturalism as prop to shore up the culturally hegemonic definition of authenticity. Just like Jack, the film samples black, queer, and immigrant experiences like items in a buffet, but ultimately fails to delve deeper. And it’s positively agnostic as to the (cisgender) female experience: besides Ally, and George’s placeholder of a wife, the xx tally stands at a couple of backup dancers and makeup artists. We’re so far from passing the Bechdel test here it’s not worth discussing. Jack’s mother died in childbirth and the whereabouts of Ally’s are never addressed. Mothers are missing and it’s a non-issue? Really? “Aren’t you tired tryin’ to fill that void?” Ally inquires, in the film’s thrilling hit duet.
There may be no better way to express her frustration with Jack’s choice to “keep it so hardcore” – and ours with the film’s unapologetic choice to languish in the shallows of the patriarchy — than the eight wordless bars of the song’s refrain. As Robin Zlotnick suggested in her delicious piece of satire in McSweeney’s — “Appropriate Moments to Respond with Lady Gaga’s Guttural Howl From the Song Shallow” – the wordless wail provides a sorely needed response for any number of situations in which one is confronted with mansplaining and assorted jive from the fellas of today. It’s a good song, but it is the song’s function within this stubborn mule of a film that should win it the Best Song Oscar. Long after the film has faded away, we’re going to be needing that primal scream.