A Star Is Born

In a pivotal scene in the new version of A Star Is Born, unknown singer-songwriter Ally (Lady Gaga) and a buddy arrive at their food-service kitchen job dressed in unflattering clothes, talking excitedly about anything but work. Their boss trudges by and says snarkily, “You’re late!” Ally is furious. “I’m late?” she says. “I’m late?!” She quits on the spot, stomps out of the restaurant, and does what her new boyfriend, rock star Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper, who also directs), has been urging her to do—get on a plane, fly out to his latest gig, sing to a packed stadium, and leave her life of drudgery behind forever.

Ally’s escape encapsulates the exhilarating fantasy of stardom—and it’s no accident that it centers on work. As Matt Stahl writes in Unfree Masters: Popular Music and the Politics of Work, “work, for most people, most of the time, is not particularly free, enjoyable or fulfilling.” Work is a grind, and that grind eats up most of our lives. The bulk of our waking time on earth is spent doing things we don’t want at the behest of people we’d sooner avoid. “I was raised in a ‘no you don’t’ world / Overrun with rules,” Barbra Streisand sings in the 1976 version of the film. But singers get to break those rules. As Stahl says, “the stars of popular music often appear to be so free and to be doing such enjoyable, expressive, and fulfilling work that it almost seems strange to think of them as working people.”

A Star Is Born is about how Ally escapes from alienation and ends up embodying freedom by expressing herself fully in her work—so fully, in fact, that her work and her self become inseparable. But it’s also about how even stars are stuck in what Stahl calls “stable structures of authority and subordination.” Stars may not seem to be working, but they are—which is the tragedy of the film.

That tragedy is by now well-worn; this is the fourth iteration of the movie. The 2018 version hits the familiar marks, following especially in the footsteps of the 70s Kris Kristofferson-Barbra Streisand version. Cooper plays an aging alcoholic rock star and songwriter. He stumbles (more or less literally) on singer-songwriter Ally performing in a drag bar and falls in love with her talent, her songwriting, and her nose. After he pushes and goads her into performing onstage with him, her career takes off, while his sinks into a bottle, Behind the Music style.

In comparison to the ’76 version, the film benefits from the fact that Cooper has a much greater range, both vocally and as an actor, than the mumbling, shambolic Kristofferson. But the 2018 script is also sharper because it’s more grounded in the dynamics of labor.

One of the first times we see Ally is when her boss forces her to take out the garbage—the definition of scut work. The drag bar where Jack meets her is her former employer; she used to work there as a waitress. The drag queens loved her so much they let her perform with them, which she does with over-the-top fabulousness, wearing false eyelashes and a leg-baring outfit. Before the film even starts, Ally has already, on a small scale, gone from drab drone to outsize star, donning elaborate makeup and costumes to express her true self (both in the narrative and, of course, as the real-life Lady Gaga.)

Even the transition from waitress to (small) star pales, though, before the duets Ally and Jack sing together, belting out their ecstatic feelings for each other in real time as the crowds cheer and the money rolls in. Work is love; love is work. That’s not just a romance, it’s a vision of capitalism overthrown.

Ally’s work becomes more fulfilling; Jack’s less so. By the middle of the movie he’s no longer singing his own songs to packed houses. Instead he’s appearing in a gig with a Roy Orbison cover band. He doesn’t even get to sing himself; he’s just a hired guitarist, off on the side, doing what someone else says for someone else’s glory—which is what most of us do for a living. He refers to the gig as “one of those paid things, soul-crushing work.”

It’s not Jack’s alienated labor that leads to the film’s tragic conclusion, though; it’s Ally’s. As Stahl writes (mentioning Lady Gaga by name, as it happens), even when a pop star embodies freedom, she is also “a political and economic actor, a working person whose contractually governed relationship to her company is sometimes one of real subordination.” Ally’s oleaginous manager, Rez (Ravi Gavron), wants her to dye her hair and perform with backup dancers. “You can’t go rogue on me,” he tells her, as bosses will.

Ally resists to some degree; “I am who I am,” she declares, by which she means her music, and her work, have to come from inside her. She sings because she wants to sing, not because someone tells her to.

But there are also limits to Ally’s autonomy. Rez makes her take dancing lessons; she has to make appearances and recordings. Toward the end of the film she wants to bring the recovering Jack on tour with her, and Rez unambiguously vetoes the idea. He then privately tells Jack that he’s wrecking Ally’s career, leading to the disastrous finale.

When a star is born, she captures our dreams, but also something of our fears. The movie is about aspiration toward true unfettered autonomy and escape from that kitchen. But it’s also about the fear that there’s another boss waiting after you get off that plane.

Jack’s brother, Bob (Sam Elliott), says that no one is to blame for Jack’s fate but Jack. That isn’t exactly true, though. Jack’s alcoholism isn’t anyone’s fault, but management’s refusal to accommodate his illness is. Jack at the end seemed at least to have a chance against his disease. It’s work that eats him. In A Star Is Born, love hurts. But it’s labor that breaks your heart.   v