It’s telling that Bradley Cooper begins his version, the fourth, of A Star is Born in a drag bar. A drag bar is, in not precisely insulting but at least somewhat paternalistic, not like other bars, even though, for his needs, it served alcohol. Queens in full face and wig line the bar, and then Lady Gaga comes out, her angular face also painted in drag makeup, as the one resident AFAB-queen. It’s commonly agreed upon that drag is about artifice, but it takes a little more thought, maybe more camp or irony, to get at artifice being a gateway to truth. So, Ally sings “La Vie en Rose” and Jackson sees the beauty and truth of her artistry not because or augmented by this drag, but in spite of it, an artistic purity that seems to be stifled by the fake eyebrows and harsh, accentuated faux contours. And when the well-worn star is birthed and begins to eclipse Jackson’s gravely country dulcet tones, via pop stardom, the movie, too, begins to view her genre stylings as just another form of drag.
A Star is Born is outfitted with contemporary details, but its main story remains pretty unchanged: Ally (Gaga) is spotted by successful country singer Jackson Mayne (Cooper) at a drag bar and sees something in her, a magnetism that invigorates him to both fall for her as well as give her a makeshift launchpad for her singing and songwriting career. Another producer notices her, and she becomes even more famous without Jackson’s help, and Jackson feels left in the dust, an old, self-destructive dog who, it is implied, refuses to learn new tricks.
It’s neither inaccurate nor uncommon to think of Lady Gaga, for whom this is a star vehicle, as a drag queen cum performance artist. Her career from the get-go has been predicated on a kind of shape shifting, particularly within specific album “eras”, e.g. the easy dissonance of her wearing a pink bubble outfit while playing an acoustic rendition of “Poker Face”. She was/is talented because of her morphology, not in spite of it; the avant garde quality to her presentation, costumery, the performances themselves and the conventionally defined “talent” of her vocal skill and her songwriting (negligible) are inextricable from one another.
So, it’s curious to see A Star is Born as this strange, multipronged object that is really only interesting in the context of her own oeuvre. It’s a revisionist pseudo-memoir or a self-effacing comment on her early career or somehow a combination of the two, while also balancing being an extension of Joanne and a companion to her video for “Marry the Night”. Sure, it’s Bradley Cooper’s passion project, and I’m sure it plays into his work as well, but with Gaga’s presence, its goodness almost doesn’t even matter because of what role it plays in Gaga’s mythology.
Though, in a way, its goodness, or badness, does end up being a strange component in that context. Let me be clear, A Star is Born is exactly what it sells itself as: the kind of old-fashioned melodrama that studios have mostly stopped making that is earnestness writ pretty large, with mostly listenable music and a PSA meditation on substance abuse and a fairly irritating perspective about music, resulting in bizarrely, ahem, shallow insights about fame and the music industry.
Cooper is aware and acknowledges and respects the past iterations of this story, but if the desire to contemporize A Star is Born is to, ostensibly, examine how modern audiences interact with celebrity culture and fame and music in a post-YouTube world, the film is incredibly insular, with essentially no context or understanding of the music landscape that Jackson and Ally occupy. There are no other country stars to talk about other than the daddy/brother issues Jackson works through, and there are no other pop stars to even make some sort of disdainful comparison to with regard to Ally’s star image. There’s no real understanding of either musician’s reach, how they changed or are changed by the state of the industry. There’s a throwaway comment about YouTube, but that never goes anywhere. The celebrity that both Jackson and Ally hold, separately and together, is no more specific now than it would have been forty years ago. Ally and Jackson exist in a vacuum, with no influences or idols; they are the idols.
The film’s problem with its understanding of fame is only alleviated a few times, or at least a more interesting understanding is gestured two in specific shots and less in the scenes themselves. When Ally plays Saturday Night Live, we get a behind the scenes look at the show’s control room, with multiple monitors look at coverage of her performance, and moreover, her body. And when she goes up to accept her Grammy, a loaded Jackson points out the gigantic screen live streaming behind her, a nightmare inversion of an earlier scene where they look at a billboard of her. But the film struggles with intimating or finding nuance (or frustration) at the multiplicity of identities that are often created for pop stars. It is, in fact, quite ironic that A Star is Born should be so weak on this front: Lady Gaga’s first full-length album as Gaga was called The Fame. A Star is Born tends to elide the specifics of the whole money, sex, sexual identity, the explosion of your identity into a postmodern world. There’s no scene that can replicate the outré provocations of “Paparazzi” or the ironic indulgence of “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich”. And it’s even less thoughtful a film about the dark side of touring than her follow-up EP The Fame Monster; there’s nothing so sinister as “Bad Romance” or as melancholic as “Speechless”.
As her experimental project has expanded, from Born This Way to ARTPOP to Cheek to Cheek to Joanne, she has revealed that her project is basically a question: How do you find yourself and who are you in a world where your idols are sold to you? This is true even of her Netflix documentary Five Foot Two, which, though it tries to undermine her self-awareness, nonetheless has her performing the drag of authenticity (or is it the authenticity of drag?). The meta-text of A Star is Born is that Ally’s identity is – and this is unavoidable – linked to Gaga’s existence, an unending performance of performance, Ally as this played version of what it looks like when you see someone try to negotiate a world in which they may ultimately become an amalgam of late capitalist aesthetics as itself cultural product.
But Gaga is good, she’s great even, in spite of the numerous things that sink the film. Even shed of the bells and whistles that are readily associated with her personas, she is magnetic, believable. She honestly performs someone unsure of their own talent and whose stage persona can be itself devoid of self-assurance, oscillating and not yet finding the right footing. When Ally plays “Always Remember Us This Way” on the piano with Jackson’s band, she recalls a performance of “The Edge of Glory” at BBC Radio 1’s concert: as naked as you’ll get on stage, where artifice can be vulnerability.
So, the beats of the story carry on predictable weight, and your mileage may vary. Ally’s initial presence with Jackson gets her noticed by a producer at Interscope (where Gaga has been signed since 2007), and she gets more famous, her pop persona is crafted, her songs become vapider (“Why Did You Do That?” is a comically bad alternate universe version of “Just Dance” and “LoveGame”), she becomes more successful, and all the while Jackson is descending deeper into an abyss of alcoholism. He looks on with contempt at her career, says cruel things, spits jealousy fueled vitriol, etc. The love that was there is to be broken and maybe pieced back together, and so goes the melodrama.
And that’s where you land, the film as one in the drag of melodrama. It’s not not a melodrama, but the film wears its melodramatic narrative turns kind of like a wig, like harshly painted contours as if to accentuate its own sense of melodrama, but without the awareness or irony that drag has. The songs will get drippier and schmaltzier, with all intention, or they’ll get worse or Jackson’s performances on stage will become more unhinged, and though there is, perhaps unintentionally, an artifice about these elements, it presents these events as both self-evident and not close enough to the skin or bone to necessarily read as embedded within the film.
Which is to say that, ultimately, the film is in drag, about drag, about drag. If that confuses you, it’s related to how Joanne can be read in the context of Lady Gaga’s broader project about fame and identity: Joanne works not because it’s exactly a great album unto itself but because Gaga only knows how to do drag, and so her authenticity is just another drag performance, not registering on the level or plane she intends to, but successful in a different way. In A Star is Born, Gaga is performing a performance authenticity, which is drag, which is performativity.
The disdain that is shown towards pop music, and implicitly towards drag, wouldn’t be as much of a problem if it didn’t permeate the whole film. It’s got a La La Land problem, but a little more poisoned because it’s clear that it isn’t just the perspective of Jackson specifically as a character (and the subjectivity of the film is thrown about freely between Jackson and Ally without really grounding the film’s vision in either), but perhaps of Cooper as well. Cooper makes a point to shoot a scene in which Ally skips away from her shitty restaurant job in a dark alley singing the intro to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, removing the drag of another industry. Back at the drag bar, while he isn’t outright full of contempt for what drag queens do, he does dichotomize between what drag queens like Willam and Shangela do and what Ally does: drag queens do “karaoke stuff” and Ally performs.
As part of Gaga’s project, is A Star is Born tinged with regret about the direction of her career? It might be presumptuous to say so, but, as in “Marry the Night”, the is a retracing of who she, Ally, once was, spritely singer songwriter, to who she became, megafamous pop star for whom artifice is an easel. The requirement of the film’s final scene, a heartbreaking ballad (here, it’s a song called “I’ll Never Love Again”) is two-fold: both as the standard ending for A Star is Born, and to have Ally walk back on the sparkles and, in honoring Jackson’s memory, honor and revive her “old self”. And while Gaga is given a very beautiful tight closeup, a kind of Judy moment so to speak, the intriguing and alienating effect is that it still feels like drag, but maybe not Gaga’s drag. But Cooper’s drag of Gaga’s drag.
Critic Dennis Lim once wrote, “The problem with Black Swan is not that it ‘sees everything in quotation marks.’ It sees camp itself in quotation marks. […] Turns out all those mirrors are an apt visual metaphor: Black Swan, at most, is camp about camp.” The incisive acrobatics of Lim’s assertion apply, unfortunately, to A Star is Born, a film that is kinda sorta about songwriting and performance, but with Gaga’s presence almost necessitates the kind of funhouse mirror analysis of its text. The film’s specificity only really exists in the central romance between Jackson and Ally, which is perfectly competent. And the songs are good, too (I’ve had “Shallow” stuck in my head since seeing it). But without a sense of humor about its feline like sense of reincarnation, as if getting too enthused about an early NYU performance by Gaga, A Star is Born is like drag about drag about drag: artifice scoffing at artifice, unaware of how that can be a form of artistic truth in its own right.