'A Star Is Born': Why the Disturbing Familiarity of Its Story Remains So Important
Since A Star Is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book stunned audiences and went on to sweep the 2019 awards season, the topic of authenticity and the pursuit of it has dominated the discourse surrounding them. But only one of these music-themed movies succeeds in telling the truth, and it does so by showing us the most insidious, destructive tendencies a musician can inflict.
(Ironically, it’s the film that isn’t based on a true story.)
Bohemian Rhapsody is a flagrant, albeit flashy, offender in this regard. In spite of its exquisite recreation of Queen’s performance at Live Aid and the band’s surviving members steering their portrayal as executive producers, the liberties taken with the chronology of events and the intimacies of Freddie Mercury’s relationships are creative, frequent and dilute reality.
Green Book erred in similar fashion: screenwriter Nick Vallelonga wrote a script faithful to the perspective of his father, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (played by Viggo Mortensen), who toured through the Jim Crow South as an escort and driver of Dr. Don Shirley, a renowned pianist (played by Mahershala Ali, who’s already won several awards for his performance). The Vallelonga and Shirley families have differing ideas of what a truthful representation of this story is, and the Shirleys have spoken out against Vallelonga and Green Book for favoring falsehoods in one account over the truthful aspects of the other.
With A Star Is Born, authenticity is achieved by leaning into a damaging constant in the music industry that remains present in the headlines: the abusive power dynamic wielded by male gatekeepers over female talent.
Cooper’s (successful) efforts to make a legitimate music movie began at Desert Trip in 2016, when he attended the classic rock festival, watched Lukas Nelson play in Neil Young’s backing band and invited him to work as a musical consultant on his remake of the romantic tragedy. (Nelson would later joke that he was the real-life inspiration for Jackson Maine, Cooper’s character; he also praised Cooper’s commitment to learning how to sing and play guitar and his affinity for both.)
Securing Lady Gaga as the film’s leading lady further bolstered that mission: the pop star took on the role of Ally, an aspiring songwriter who’d been told by label execs that her looks would prohibit her success. (“The character of Ally is informed by my life experience,” Gaga said in a 2018 Elle cover story. “But I also wanted to make sure that she was not me. It was a cadence of both.”)
The central tension of A Star Is Born concerns the ownership of Ally’s agency -- as an artist, a muse, a wife, a savior -- and who’s entitled to it. Jackson treats her as his, from the onset. He doesn’t take no for an answer when she tells him she has to work and can’t make it to his out-of-state gig, and has his driver essentially stalk her until she relents and gets in the car. He doesn’t ask her if he can perform her song, “Shallow,” when he surprises her onstage, but tells her he’ll perform the song without her if she doesn’t join him. He doesn’t listen to her when she talks through the lucrative offer she received from Interscope to record an album and launch her solo career, mostly because he’s so drunk he can’t sit up straight (and ends the conversation when he loses his balance and falls to the floor).
His reflex to control their communication, and by extension, her creative output isn’t always overbearing, nor does he convey a man intentionally seeking to put her in her place. When Ally’s nerves overcome her in the studio, it’s Jackson who identifies what’s tripping her up and makes the suggestion that removes the obstacle; when Jackson humiliates her at the Grammys and debases himself while stealing her spotlight, he doesn’t climb the stairs to the stage to sabotage her, but can’t protect her from the consequences of his actions, either.
In the few instances where Ally asserts herself and follows through with her instincts, the men around her behave badly: Jackson seethes, mocks and berates her when she dyes her hair and ditches the rock they wrote together for pop, and her manager, Rez, scolds her for effectively acting out and performing without the back-up dancers he insisted she use. Ultimately, Jackson holds onto his control of their relationship in the most swift and selfish way by ending it on his irrevocable terms: he denies her all options, all choices, but his own.
A Star Is Born isn’t based on a true story, but might as well be. As the Oscars approach, so do more reminders of this as women come forward with their experiences with allegedly psychologically abusive musicians. Instead of trading facts for glossier fictions, A Star Is Born indicts toxic masculinity and traces, in tragic detail, the scars it can leave on the lives and art of the less powerful. Jackson and Ally may borrow from Lukas Nelson, Lady Gaga and the lived experiences of real musicians, but it’s a shame that the darkest parts of A Star Is Born are echoes of a painful dynamic that should stay on screen -- and clear of the future.