Saving And Harming; Is A Star Is Born A Film About Abuse?

There’s a theory often quoted that when it comes to plots of stories there are only seven (some people come up with a different, but similar, number). Every story ever told falls into one of the seven templates, maybe with subtle differences to others versions – but recognisable all the same. Originality has not always been seen as a virtue; much of what Shakespeare wrote was predictable in terms of the template of the stories; what was unique about his plays was the beauty of the language and the way he extracted profound and universal themes from old material.

Even so, it’s rare that unoriginality is so clearly signalled as it is in A Star Is Born, directed by and starring Bradley Cooper and co-starring Lady Gaga. This story has been made into a film four times under this title (including this one); I haven’t seen any of them until now, but it was no less predictable for that. It’s a story that has been told and retold in countless versions with different titles and variation over the years. That’s not to criticise it; simply to say that if you’ve seen a few films, there won’t be many surprises here – although the gasp from the row of young adults behind me at one major development which I saw coming before I’d even seen the film, indicated that something is always new to someone. Bradley Cooper is an ageing rock star whose career has passed its peak; he meets part-time singer Lady Gaga in a club where she’s performing. He takes her under his wing as lover and protegé; the rest … well either you can guess it, or you’re like one of those young adults.

The film has much to recommend it. Bradley Cooper’s direction is deft, telling the story engagingly and compellingly. His own performance is excellent; and he’s clearly a more than able musician, able to convince as a genuine rock star. Wherever you stand on Lady Gaga, you can’t deny the power of her voice – and she shows it off here to its full capacity. Hearing her sing on a big screen with a big sound system is a treat indeed – hers is a voice to truly stop the listener in his tracks. She can act too – her gradual ascent is believable, her nervousness and discomfort palpable. She’s a proper star; one of those people who I suspect, rather annyoingly, can put her mind to most things successfully. To make it even worse she’s probably a nice person to boot.

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There’s a big question hanging over it all, that I can’t find a satisfying answer to. It hinges on this: is the film portraying something and critiquing it, or is it indulging it? The ‘it’ here is the endemically patriarchal music industry, expressed through the abuse, control and manipulation of a young woman by powerful men. There are moments throughout the film where Ally (Lady Gaga) appears to have a choice, but in reality doesn’t; Bradley Cooper’s character – who has had her privately flown backstage to his gig – introduces one of her songs to the crowd and invites her out. She’s free to decline, of course … but who could possibly do that? Quickly she becomes essential to his fading glory; and as her star ascends and her career takes off, his jealousy and incapability of coping without her is writ large. He slips into bouts of substance abuse and depression; she keeps boomeranging  back. In one disturbing moment, he ends an angry, drunk tirade at Ally (vulnerable, naked, in the bath) by calling her ugly (amongst much else). She stands up to him, for a time. All the time, her (male) manager makes choices for her and controls her career; some of which she eschews anyway (and gets an angry response, of course), some of them she submits to. Her music is changed; from piano or guitar led (she reminded me almost of Tori Amos in the beginning) to making the sort of music that (almost all) white, male critics deem insubstantial and empty; dance-pop, appealing to girls and young women.

Of course, it’s all about Bradley Cooper’s character’s redemption; she brings meaning to him; she reawakens his songwriting gift. From the end of the film, it’s clear that her career will for ever be defined by the man who spotted her and married her.

I’ve no doubt the music industry is deeply patriarchal and abusive towards women; the question for this film to answer is if it is giving us an honest portrayal to interrogate and critique; or is the film sinking into the same morass it shows us on screen? As #metoo has shown us, the movie industry is no different to any other in the way powerful men abuse, manipulate and control women – especially women at the start of their careers.

Lady Gaga’s Ally wouldn’t have a career without men; and we leave her at the film’s end still in a man’s shadow. She has bought him a measure of redemption – but that’s the point, I think. Her career is about him; it’s for him, heals him, remakes him. She seems to be doing her masters’ bidding all this time.

I left having enjoyed the film, been gripped and moved by it. It left me deeply troubled also. I am only now in the process of identifying and understanding my own abuse twenty-five years ago; I felt reminded of my own past that I can’t yet name fully. Not in a good way, but in a way that seemed to excuse the abuse because of what happened in Ally’s career. I wonder what a woman currently in an abusive relationship might make of this.

I’m sure Bradley Cooper never intended this; therein, though, is the point. We’re so inured to the trope of the (young) woman being ‘saved’ by an older man, who takes advantage of her in such a way as she can never leave, that we expect it to be like this. We’ve forgotten how to tell this story differently, where the young woman has vibrancy and agency that doesn’t depend on a man calling it out of her and keeping her at his beck and call, healing him even as he wounds her. It’s an old story, that for all its pleasures deserves a better, newer telling than this if the wounds of many are to receive some measure of healing.

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