Brow Beat

A Star Is Born Makes a Romance of Rock’s Most Damaging Myths

The movie’s battle between rock and pop, authenticity and artifice, and art and commerce is outdated at best.

Bradley Cooper plays at the piano as Lady Gaga leans over.
Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born. Warner Bros.

This post discusses the ending of the new A Star Is Born, which is the same as the ending of the versions released in 1976, 1954, and 1937.

A few minutes after A Star Is Born’s Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) discovers Lady Gaga’s Ally in a drag bar, he’s singing about “let[ting] the old ways die,” and by the end of the movie, he’s made good on his promise. In all of its iterations, from the 1930s to the present, A Star Is Born has been the story of a fading male icon passing the torch to an up-and-coming ingénue, but in the new version, it’s also the story of a shift from rock to pop, and from rock-era signifiers of authenticity to an understanding that, especially in the realm of celebrity, identity is a construct that is constantly in flux. The movie’s arc clearly positions Ally as the winner of this cultural contest, and not just because by the end she’s the only star left standing. But scratch the surface of Cooper’s Star Is Born and you’ll find a deeply conservative movie in which the trappings of contemporary pop-stardom are regarded with skepticism verging on distaste, and the best way a rock star can prove his tortured bona fides is to kill himself.

To work, A Star Is Born needs to convince its audience that Jackson and Ally are the real deal—and to do that, we need to believe that its stars are, too. The movie opens with Cooper in full Rock God mode, basking in the electric hum of the crowd before he launches into “Black Eyes,” a stomping anthem that rides the line between blues rock and grunge. As he erupts into a screaming solo, his fingers bending the strings in close-up, the handheld camera and the shots of the audience (borrowed from a Willie Nelson concert) connote that this is all really happening. From his lugubrious swamp-mud voice to his grimy-looking hair and leathery skin (actually the product of a daily spray tan), Cooper does the opposite of making it look easy; he is at pains to show his work. Even the victory lap of a promotional tour for the movie becomes another opportunity to stand athwart the machinery.

With Lady Gaga, a different kind of validity is at stake. The movie doesn’t linger on her fingers moving over piano keys, because we already know she can do that. Instead, she’s introduced in blue-collar mode, toiling at a restaurant and literally taking out the trash. Ally’s not afraid to get her hands dirty, and neither is Gaga. But in order to prove that she’s not just a pop star slipping on another persona, the way she did on American Horror Story, Gaga has to let the mask crack, to show us something that feels like it’s being created in the moment rather than choreographed backstage. Even if you don’t know A Star Is Born’s story going in, you know where it’s headed, and the spine of Gaga’s performance is how she both delays and satisfies the desire to see her in full pop-star bloom. What makes the unveiling of “Shallow” so thrilling isn’t just the song itself, but the uncertainty in which it’s wrapped, the way Ally’s still shaking as she takes the stage, caught unawares by Jackson’s surprise invitation. Cooper’s first verse is choked, closed-off, weighed down by world-weariness. But it hardly registers at all, because you’re so anxious for what’s coming next: the moment when Ally opens her voice to the world. The song, and the movie, gives it to us step by step: a delicate verse, an escalating refrain, and then a chorus that flings the doors wide open—the moment when a star is born. Ally isn’t falling anymore; she’s diving, tapped into feelings so deep that they go beyond words.

The movie spends the rest of its length chasing the intensity of that moment, and one way of looking at its story is that Ally and Jack do as well. But another is as a zero-sum battle between art and commerce where art is pure and commerce is foul, and the mixing of the two is a necessary but regrettable evil. (Never mind that Lennon and McCartney would jump-start their inspiration by saying, “Let’s write a swimming pool.”) Ally’s fine when she’s touring with Jackson and his band, but as soon as she steps out on her own, she falls under the influence of Rez (Rafi Gavron), a music-industry legend whose first directive is to get her off the road with live musicians (a band that in real life is named Promise of the Real, as if after Russell Hammond’s acid trip from Almost Famous) and into the studio with prerecorded backing tracks. He sets her up with a choreographer, dancers, and a stylist, and before you know it, she’s dyed her hair red and is worshiping at the altar of Mammon that is Saturday Night Live, gyrating to synthesized beats and singing a song whose lyrics repeat the phrase “This is not like me.” It’s enough to drive Jackson back to the bottle, and the viewer is meant to relate.

The first thing Jackson does when he gets Ally alone, after hearing her belt out “La Vie en Rose” in a drag bar, is to wipe the makeup off her face, just as Cooper reportedly did during Gaga’s audition for the role, the better to see her with “no artifice.” (According to Gaga, he even banned her from wearing makeup on the set, a restriction he did not extend to himself.) The movie nods to the idea that Jackson’s act is its own form of drag when his brother, played by Sam Elliott, accuses him of imitating his speech—“You stole my voice”—and in a fleeting moment where Ally applies fake eyebrows to Jackson’s forehead while the two are in the bath.

But it never undermines or complicates the idea that the further from Jackson’s influence Ally gets, the worse her music becomes. What makes a star isn’t just talent, Jackson argues. It’s not enough to be a good singer, and Jackson’s brother, with his identical voice and starkly different career, is living proof. You have to have “something to say.” And as an anguished Jack reiterates to Ally in front of an airbrushed billboard of herself, it has to come from deep down in her “fucking soul.” In music criticism, the turn of the 21st century was marked by the struggle between rockism, which Kelefa Sanneh defined in the New York Times as “idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star … loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher,” and poptimism, which, Saul Austerlitz fretted in the Times a decade later, had replaced the exacting standards of rock criticism with the glib worship of artifice. It was never that simple, but A Star Is Born acts as if the debate never happened at all. A popular online parlor game involves casting the version of A Star Is Born that should have arrived in the 1990s, but especially given the length of time that the current version has been in the works, you could make a strong case that this is the 1990s version, only two decades two late. The division between rock “authenticity” and pop artifice feels like a holdover from a time where selling out was considered an unpardonable sin rather than a fact of life, when lip-synching was a betrayal and not a spectator sport.

But the most noxious vestige of an earlier era is the way A Star Is Born treats Jackson’s suicide as both a noble act of self-sacrifice and the ultimate validation of his tortured lyrics. The first time he sings to Ally, he’s foreshadowing his own death alongside the “old ways” he represents, framing the world as “one big old Catherine wheel” of endless torment. In the bluesy duet “Diggin’ My Grave,” he looks forward to a time when “I’ll be gone from here/ and you’ll all be dressed in black,” and in “Too Far Gone,” he proclaims, “I can’t go on if I ain’t livin’ in your arms.” One hopes “I’ll Never Love Again” isn’t true for Ally, as moving as the rendition she sings at Jackson’s postmortem tribute is, but it’s certainly true for him. (It doesn’t take much to imagine Jackson Maine’s death casting an ineradicable shadow over his work, the way it has for Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse.) Although the movie doesn’t really position Jackson as a has-been, it also doesn’t forcefully gainsay the notion that the best thing he can do for Ally is get out of her way.

Perhaps Jackson was always doomed, and the best Ally could ever have hoped for was to slow his descent. But it’s telling that his final act effectively sets her back on course. After Jackson dies, Ally appears at a concert in his honor, singing in front of a live orchestra—no drum machines here. Having dropped her surname to go pop, she takes his on for the first time, introducing herself, “I’m Ally Maine.” Her voice is strong and clear, but the movie cuts her off to return to the moment Jackson first played her his composition, and it’s he who gets the last word. She’s a star, but the song is his.