‘A Star is Born’ shows music speaks louder

By Thomas Block, Columnist

I’m behind the curve, aren’t I? The headlines have beat me to it. You already know the film “A Star is Born,” a heavy but heartfelt portrait of fame and addiction, has continually smashed expectations at the box office for the four weeks since its theatrical release, raking in over 200 million dollars worldwide.

You know the movie has scored big with critics and earned some charming praise for its star and first-time director Bradley Cooper, not to mention a berserkly good performance from the pop titan Lady Gaga. If you’ve seen it too, then you’ll probably already know the hype is at least somewhat warranted: it’s one solid show.

What you might not know is how the motion picture became as unstoppable as it is; positive reviews and an A-list cast don’t always guarantee a movie won’t flop (take “Blade Runner 2049,” for example). I don’t know how people choose to spend their money, but I have a pretty good idea of how they respond to the screen. Each good film has its unique winning feature, but with “A Star is Born,” we just have to face the music … it’s probably the music.

In the unlikely event we’re on different pages, this movie is the latest in a string of remakes—the original “A Star is Born” by William A. Wellman dates back to 1937—though it only loosely follows its predecessors. Cooper’s version follows Jackson Maine (played by none other than a gruff, dusty-hat-wielding Cooper), a successful roots rock artist who knows how to write a song as well as he can belt it (or croon it) in front of thousands.

From the get-go, he deals with an ugly alcohol dependency; upon polishing off the last couple drops in his flask, he tells his limo driver to pull over and let him out at yet another bar. A moment of poignancy flips into one of inspiration; he stumbles in just in time to see a regular (Lady Gaga) deliver a jaw-dropping rendition of “La Vie En Rose” on a tiny stage in the back. It’s the act of her life. Or his. He’s mesmerized. For now, she works during the day as a waitress. After Maine brings her along on one of his tours, everyone in the country will know the name Ally.

The script, written by Cooper, Eric Roth and Will Fetters, doesn’t sidestep cliches as much as it twists them into obvious but effective drama. A star is indeed born here, but another loses their footing to disease. Even when the relationship between Ally and Jackson hangs by a thread, the music that first united the two musicians keeps their bond from disintegrating. We believe it; the music we hear in this movie is powerful enough to pack an arena.

I don’t like my tunes too flashy. I like Radiohead and Sufjan Stevens, among other relatively subdued artists. The soundtrack for “A Star is Born,” featuring songwriting by Mark Ronson and Lady Gaga herself, is a little too theatrical for me to listen to on headphones. Placed into the context of the movie, however, these songs hit the spot. After all, subtlety doesn’t really have any place in a musical.

Not that Cooper doesn’t like to have it both ways—for as open as they are onstage, the characters in “A Star is Born” have trouble communicating what they want and feel when they’re out from under the spotlight. When it comes to deciphering these emotions, the audience just needs a big musical number every once in a while to spell them out.

Take “Black Eyes,” played by Maine the first time we see him in concert. Though he’s a stirring performer, the song is blaring, even aggressive. The shaky view from a handheld camera indicates something impersonal to us, almost as if Maine doesn’t realize how claustrophobic he feels up there.

It isn’t until a later scene, where Maine plays a lonely ballad on his guitar to a couple of loyal fans in an empty venue, that we realize the tangible magic that music can still bring to the celebrity and the people he’s thankful for. This is where he feels at home.

It’s why we listen to, and even play, music in the first place. It provides the perfect supplement to our emotions when words won’t quite fit; often, we can feel a sentimental connection better than we can think it. As intricate as our lives can get, music can help identify and even interpret the parts that make us us. Even cinema, capable of capturing the most vivid interactions any art form can offer, needs music’s help every once in a while to open up our minds.

Yes, the soaring melodies in “A Star is Born” may go for broke, but we go right along with them.

Thomas is a sophomore in Engineering.

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