Music

Why Does ‘A Star Is Born’ Have Such A Messy Relationship With Music?

We examine the curiously hollow musical heart of 'A Star Is Born'.

A Star Is Born

Warning: Minor A Star is Born spoilers ahead.

About midway through A Star Is Born, fading rocker Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) turns to up-and-comer Ally Campana (Lady Gaga) and imparts some wisdom.

“Look, talent is everywhere, but having something to say and a way to say it so that people listen to it, that’s a whole other bag,” he tells her. “And unless you get out and you try to do it, you’ll never know. That’s just the truth. We’re supposed to be here to say something.”

This speech more or less serves as the central thesis of the film and how it views music. Yet, A Star is Born prefers to focus on what great music should be — and how a music career should be run — rather than getting to the heart of what leads to someone to bare their soul through music. 

A Fading Star, An Emerging Talent

A Star is Born, directed by Cooper, tells the story of Jack and Ally’s relationship while his career fades and hers begins to shine.

The drive of the film is that we’re witnessing two hearts and minds coming together to create music that will give us a reason to sit up and listen. But the film takes so many emotional shortcuts and it can only give us the perception of musical greatness.

There’s no doubt where the greatness in the film is coming from: Lady Gaga’s voice. Whenever she opens her mouth it’s like a magnificent power being released; there’s no doubting her incredible talent.

Indeed, a lot of A Star is Born is Lady Gaga pushing the film uphill with her voice, but Cooper’s phony sense of musical legitimacy and sentimentality turns the scenes outside of any performance into a soppy mess. We’re given no insight into what makes Jack’s music great. His voice meanwhile, is a mix of country with a tinge of grunge — like Blake Shelton and Eddie Vedder uncomfortably fused together.

Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) and Ally Campana (Lady Gaga) in ‘A Star Is Born’.

In the days after seeing A Star is Born the only song I could recall was ‘Why Did You Do That?’, the pop single Ally releases that launches her career that’s a real earworm. In a key scene, Ally is performing the single on Saturday Night Live, powering through the lyrics: “Why do you look so good in those jeans? Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?”

Ally’s got something to say, and it’s all about dat butt — and there’s nothing wrong with singing about dat butt. But A Star is Born uses this moment to send Jack into a rage over the direction of Ally’s career, as if to say that all music that doesn’t sound like Eddie Vedder with heatstroke is trash.

Jack’s disappointment is meant to be a critique on the fickle side of the music industry and fame because he views Ally’s music as superficial; she didn’t listen to his advice and is instead following the path of popularity to stardom. But there’s another issue here: we never actually get a sense of Ally’s true ambition.

From the outset we know she likes to perform, she has a songbook with lyrics written down (which could be just songs about butts, we’ll never know), she’s been criticised by music professionals people before and … that’s it. Only through Jack do we get a sense of what kind of artist Ally wants to be — and that’s a huge problem.

Ally gets further short-changed by the story when Cooper decides to focus on Jack’s pain for a bulk of the entire second half of the film.

Stick To Your Path, As Long As It’s The Right One

Considering A Star is Born is examining the music industry as one talent enters while the other leaves, it can only land on the impression that any success is ultimately fake unless you follow a strict path and sound. In much the same way that music fans will question an artist’s authenticity (Lana Del Rey anyone?), as if they need to earn their respect.

But to make it worse, the songs that Jack sings are curiously emotionally vacant. We get absolutely no sense of where Jack’s music is coming from, or what the lyrics mean to him personally. Trauma from his past is mentioned — especially between his father and brother (played by Sam Elliot, and he’s the legit best thing in this movie) — but we never get to witness this within his songwriting process.

You get no sense of where Jack’s music is coming from or what the lyrics mean to him personally.

If music is built around a character in a film, then the songs should do the emotional heavy lifting. Recent films like Inside Llewyn Davis, Begin Again, Straight Outta Compton and Sing Street excel at linking the music each character is making to their emotional mindset; why say it when you can sing it?

In A Star is Born, the only time we get a sense that Jack’s music means anything to anyone is when a fan approaches him at a bar. But A Star Is Born has such disdain for the people who like Jack’s music that they have Ally punch the fan in the face for daring to interrupt their genius conversation.

Ally (Lady Gaga) in A Star Is Born.

Ultimately, A Star is Born rests on the idea that Ally had nothing valuable to say until she’d experienced something traumatic in her life — caused by Jack. When it comes to creativity, Jack is a sacrifice at the altar of “good music”, and he falls apart at the hands of a clichéd evil manager.

If anything, A Star is Born’s best element is clearing house. Early in the film, Jack sings an acoustic number with the lyric “maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,” the film’s confessional moment that tethers its rickety emotional core together; Ally is the future and Jack is the past.

An obvious sentiment considering the title of the film, and the fact that it’s the fourth time it has been remade. Maybe it’s time to let remakes of A Star is Born die?

Cameron Williams is a writer and film critic based in Melbourne who occasionally blabs about movies on ABC radio. He has a slight Twitter addiction: @MrCamW.

All images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures