Why I’m Off The Deep End Over “A Star Is Born”

Warning:  There are many spoilers in this article

It’s embarrassing to admit that as of this afternoon, I’ve spent at least $50 of my hardly-earned money to watch the film A Star Is Born in the theaters.  Four times now, I’ve gone off to watch this melodrama on purpose.  The last time I went, I got inspired and dashed out to catch a 9:45 showing–one that turned out to be a private viewing.  I was the only soul in the theater until after midnight.  I’m pretty sure that I’m not going to go a fifth time, but as I sat down to write, I did check to see that it just happens to be showing at 6:45 tonight at a nearby theater.  Just in case.

The last time I went to the theaters to see a film four times was in 1964. I was 11 years old and the Beatle’s film  A Hard Day’s Night was all the rage among teens and pre-teens.  It was a badge of honor to brag about how many viewings you had attended.

I’m not bragging about this one.  I have mentioned it quietly to a friend or two–in confidence.  I felt better this morning when I stumbled across an article by Christopher Rosa that appeared in Glamour Magazine on January 11.  In it, he detailed how he had spent over $100 viewing the film 8 times!

The big difference between Mr. Rosa and me is that he is a huge Lady Gaga fan and speaks about her with the kind of reverence that some people only use for their mothers or certain sports figures.  I, on the other hand, know who Lady Gaga is, and I’m pretty sure I saw part of her performance at the Super Bowl.  If you showed me a list of her 10 greatest hits, I would not recognize any of them.

That’s not Lady Gaga’s fault at all.  My musical tastes have gone through periods of fossilization, and there are scores of popular artists who are a mystery to me.

I went into the film with the lowest of expectations.  I had a sketchy idea of what the film was about knowing only that it was a remake of a remake about a star in decline falling in love and being eclipsed by the lover he has mentored and nurtured.

I’ve been trying to pinpoint the precise moment in the film when I knew I was hooked, and I think it may have been in the drag-bar scene where Jack ( Bradley Cooper) sings a ballad to one of the queens while Ally (Gaga) looks on, and I could feel the chemistry really begin to cook between the two of them.  After all, she stands off to the side watching him, a famous, grizzled country/rock star, sing and play for one of her drag-queen friends, both respecting a place that she loves and at ease with himself and her friends.

You could put Gaga in a sack and she’d look glamorous, but her down-to-earth, girl-next-door look through the first half of the film made me love her even more.  Punching a cop in a cop bar and being carried out by Jack who then nurses bruised hand with tender care did nothing but add to the feeling that I was watching a great love story develop and I am a total sucker for watching two likable characters fall in love.

Up to this point in the film, I realized that I was identifying entirely with Jackson Maine.  I’m falling in love with Ally right along with him and feel the same sense of despair when he says his first goodbye to her a dawn out in front of her house and mumbles something to the effect, “I think I might have fucked that up” to his erstwhile driver, Phil (Greg Grunberg).

Minutes later, the point of view completely shifted for me. I realized that suddenly I was seeing everything through Ally’s eyes.  As Jack woos her by having his driver Phil follow her from place to place with his limo while a jet waits for her at the airport to whisk her away to his next show, I’m right there with her feeling the rush of amazement and overwhelmed by the “grand-gestureness” of it all.  Sure, it makes perfect sense to quit her dead-end job, jump on the jet, and join the roadies backstage who all seem to already know her name.

Then comes the most ridiculous and wonderful moment in the film.  As they sat in the parking lot the night before, Ally sings two disjointed scraps of a song she might write some day. Maybe. The very next night, he calls her out on stage.  Somehow, he has finished the song, arranged it, rehearsed it (all without her mind you), and she takes the leap and kills what we are to believe is the very first performance of the song “Shallow.”

As she walks up on stage and takes the mic, tears involuntarily burst from my eyes–I kid you not.  It’s the only moment in the film that made me cry.  Even on the third viewing, that moment gave me chills. The risk she takes, the reaction of the crowd, the pride in Jack’s eyes as he watches her win the moment, just did me in.

Watching their relationship develop and the artful weaving in of the concert performances carry the middle part of the film.  Her performance of “Always Remember Us This Way” rivals “Shallow” for being able to create that visceral connection with the audience.

But shortly thereafter she falls into the evil clutches of super-agent Rez (Rafi Gavron), and I find myself  becoming just another person watching the film.  Maybe it’s a defensive posture, knowing that my buddy Jack is going to continue to spiral both personally and professionally, and that Ally is going to rise to stardom, now transformed into a pop diva.  These two things have to happen because that is the story of A Star Is Born.

Gaga’s stirring finale, her performance of “I’ll Never Love Again” is worth waiting around for, even if your are the only person in the audience in a theater after midnight.  But by then, I’m already looking forward to the next time I’ll get to go on this emotional rollercoaster.

And yes, there will be a next time.

Top Five Films About Music

The thing about doing a “top five” review of any pop-culture genre is that it easily can turn into frustrating, time-sucking exercise that absolutely none of my 12 readers will agree with me about.

I know from experience.  Way back in April of 2014, I did a piece on the top five television detectives.  It took five full days of writing and research and ended up being 4,000 words long.  You can find it here, if you are a fan of detective shows.

Nonetheless, I’ve discussed before how much I like the sub-genre of films that are about music, musicians, or the music industry.  I’m not sure why it touches such a nerve for me. I think it is because I view a love for music as such a universally unifying force. When a film that portrays that well, and throws in a great concert scene where the band or the performer connects in some kind of magical musical moment, it takes me back to when I’ve been in such a crowd.  Those are some of the happiest moments that I can think of.

So when I first discussed this topic with my wife, she asked the question I was avoiding:  What criteria are you going to use?  I wanted my criteria to be just two things

1.  I’ve seen the film

2.   I liked the film

But given the list of 20+ nominations that came in when I opened the topic up to my Facebook friends, I knew I’d need something to winnow down the list.  What I decided I was looking for were the films that both captured the raw passion of a love for music and managed to keep music as the main focus of the film.

The more I thought about it, virtually every good music film is a hybrid of some sort. A pure “focus on the music” is pretty rare.  But, I said I’d pick five.  Here they are:

#5–Searching for Sugar Man

This documentary almost fell of my list just because the first half leans heavily on making it a mystery film.  However, the story of Sixto Rodriguez, an artist known almost entirely by his surname, is so remarkable that it bears a careful look.The 2012 film, written and directed by Malik Bendjelloul, recounts the story of Rodriguez, a Mexican rock singer and composer who played in small clubs in his native Detroit and impressed a record studio enough to release his first album (Cold Fact) in 1970 and his second (Coming From Reality) in 1971.  Despite the enthusiasm of the men who had discovered and cultivated Rodriguez, the albums went nowhere.  His Dylan-like style and dedication to social justice, his anthems that spoke for the working poor, died on the vine.  He went back to a simple life of doing construction demolition to make ends meet at the same time that lurid stories began to circulate that he had gruesomely killed himself during a concert performance.  He simply drifted into obscurity.

The bulk of the film is dedicated to the search performed by two fans from South Africa where, unknown to Rodriguez, he had become wildly popular by the mid-90’s.  His music of rebellion against social norms resonated deeply with the oppressed people of the region.  Even though he was virtually unknown in the US or in his own hometown, he had become “bigger than Elvis” in South Africa.  The film unravels this discovery slowly (perhaps too slowly) and documents Rodriguez traveling to South Africa in 1998, stunned by the greeting from adoring crowds at six sold-out shows.

I chose this film because it proves that music, like The Dude, endures.  HIs songs of protest and change caught fire in a country where they were banned and where apartheid was used to oppress the masses.  The masses heard his voice and brought his music back to life.

#4–Love and Mercy

There were a number of fine bio-pics (“Ray,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” come to mind) to chose from, but the Bill Pohlad film was the one that stuck with me. Before I saw the film I considered the music of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys to be nothing but fun-loving, pop music that was the background of my adolescence even though I never drove a “woody” or spent anytime close to a surf board (regretfully).  Nothing wrong with that.

Wilson’s story weaves back and forth between the young Wilson (Paul Dano) and his older self (John Cusak).  The adult story line is compelling enough, as Cusak’s character tries to escape the smothering presence of his uber-manipulative agent and keeper (played creepily by Paul Giamatti), but far less interesting than the parallel story of the younger Wilson.

The core of the movie develops as Pohlad unfolds the musical brilliance that was behind all of that fluff.  The story he tells is of a young genius, who eschews the limelight of performance and touring to spend hour after hour working with studio musicians creating the sound of the Beach Boys.  In one such scene, Wilson passes out a single sheet of music to his crew who all go to work trying to interpret it while he bounces from the drums, to the cello, to the keyboards, coaching them along, assembling bits of music that are mostly in his head, and improvising on the fly.  The viewer has no chance to figure out what song is being assembled until the scene builds to the addition of the vocals and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” emerges, sounding like an entirely different song than the one I grew up with after witnessing it’s construction and Wilson’s incredible creative process.

The film builds around scenes like these, and I wish there were more of them.  There are enough though to paint the picture of how a person with a creative vision can pull together all the disparate pieces needed to create beautiful music.

#3–Once

One critic described Once (2007) as “a musical for people who don’t like musicals.”  I have to admit, I never thought of it as a musical, but director John Carney describes it that way, so I’ll have to take him at his word.

Set in Dublin, Once tells the story of a guy and a girl (they are never named–something else I never noticed) who come together as musicians and almost (but not quite) as lovers.

The guy (Glen Hansard) is a street musician and songwriter, and we are immersed in his songs and his dedication to music from the opening scene as he stands out on gritty Dublin streets singing for donations.  He meets the girl (Marketa Iglova) who stops to comment on his songs and toss a coin into his guitar case.  They chat and it turns out that she too is a musician, a pianist.  It only takes the film 14.5 minutes to get the two of them into a music store where she is allowed to play piano during the owner’s lunch break.

In this scene we get one of those moments of “musical magic” that is pure fantasy.  They decide to play one of this songs together.  After a 20-second tutorial, the pair seamlessly, without a single misstep or mistake, soar through Hansard’s lovely “Falling Slowly” a rendition so good that they will eventually win the 2008 Oscar Award for Best Original Song for it.

Yes, it is musical fantasy, but the gorgeous kind that gives me chills when the music is that good.  The guy and the girl are now “falling slowly” in love, not yet aware of the obstacles that will end up keeping them apart.  But they begin an unlikely collaboration as she shares some of her original work with him, and he asks her to begin to write lyrics for some of his work.  Their work with lyrics allows them to express their feelings about love and loss in ways that they just can’t through words alone.

The guy’s songs lament his lost love a former girlfriend who has left him and gone to London and bend between anger and longing and regret.  We learn later that the girl has left a husband behind in the Czech Republic and her songs are full of haunting lyrics that evoke loneliness and alienation.

We get a generous dose of music throughout, but it culminates in a weekend session in a recording studio with the guy and the girl and three other street musicians that they’ve talked into playing with them. The goal is to produce a demo disc that the guy can use to launch his career in London where he hopes he might win back the love he has lost.  The more they play, the better they get, and soon they’ve made a believer out of the bored studio tech as they push through the marathon recording session.

Once tells the best kind of love story, the bittersweet kind in which two lovers find each other in the wrong time and place. However, it never loses its focus on the music and the camaraderie that it brings, and the hope that it inspires.

#2–Almost Famous

“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.”  Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).

Here’s the dilemma about writing a piece like this.  I want the focus to be “films on music” where some element of music is really the driver of the film.  For example, Walk the Line is a fine film about an iconic musician, but isn’t it mostly a story of enduring love and the struggles with addiction and recovery?  Same with A Star is Born, a film I absolutely loved (for the first hour and ten minutes).  See what I mean?  Every story is a hybrid.

Almost Famous could be filed away under “coming-of-age story” where the real focus, reflected in the quote above, is on our never-ending desire to fit in.  However, watching it again and reading up on it, made me feel very comfortable having it on the list, and under the sure-handed writing and direction of Cameron Crowe, it makes its way to the number two spot.

Set in 1973, fifteen-year-old William (Patrick Fugit) has been raised by a mom (Frances McDormand) who has tried to insulate her children from the corrosive effects of pop culture, especially its music.  She catches her daughter Anita (Zooey Deschanel) smuggling a Simon and Garfunkel album into the house, which she declares is “the music of drugs and promiscuous sex.”  The scene prompts Anita to run off with her Ken-doll boyfriend but not before leaving a box of albums behind for William.  As he flips through his new collection of Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell he opens a familiar looking Who album where she has left him directions on a post-it: “Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you’ll see your whole future.”

The film is held together by the quest for “cool.”  Anita’s gift is supposed to reassure him that some day he will be cool, but it is his dedication to rock and roll, and his rock reviews for a local underground newspaper that launch his career into the coolest adventure a fifteen-year-old could imagine–getting invited to join the tour of the mythical band Stillwater as they bounce from city to city on an old bus–getting to be “with the band.” He strives throughout the film to get his critical interview with lead guitarist, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), as he sits behind the scenes watching the tensions grow in this, “mid-level band struggling with their own limitations in the harsh face of stardom.”  One minute he is a trusted friend; the next he becomes “the enemy”–the keeper of all of their secrets.

Ironically, the band in this film is not portrayed as particularly dedicated to their music, seeming much more concerned with status, fame, and being allowed to live a life of excess.  But for William and all of the other band followers including the “band-aids” (don’t call them groupies) lead by Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), the love of the band and the love of their music and the experience of each concert is something that they have come to live for, a drug more important than any of the drugs that get passed around at the never-ending parties.  Sapphire, one of the “band-aids” sums up passion that draws them into this life when she says, “They don’t even know what it means to be a fan.  Y’Know? To truly love some silly little piece of music or some band, so much that it hurts.”

Even through betrayals and reversals and the initial rejection of his article by Rolling Stone magazine, William persists and finally returns home.  In their unexpected reunion near the end of the film, William finally corners Russell for this interview.  The first question:  “So Russell…what do you love about music.”  And the guitarist finally answers, “To begin with…everything.”

Cameron Crowe has a lot of stories to tell in this one semi-autobiographical film, but his affection for rock-and-roll creates the core around which this film is built.

#1–The Commitments

This 1991 film directed by Alan Parker just barely broke even at the box office, but has gathered something of a cult following and produced an absolutely killer soundtrack.  It is the story of music fanatic/entrepreneur, Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkin), who develops a passionate love for American soul music while living on the rough-edged north side of Dublin, Ireland.

Jimmy is living his dream of assembling a band that will bring soul music to Ireland.  Along the way, he has to do a lot of convincing, to both his musicians and his audiences that there is a reason that this music is something that will connect with the people of Dublin.  Once he has the core of the band collected, he lectures the group enthusiastically, telling them that, Soul is the music people understand. Sure it’s basic and it’s simple. But it’s something else ’cause, ’cause, ’cause it’s honest, that’s it. Its honest. There’s no fuckin’ bullshit. It sticks its neck out and says it straight from the heart. Sure there’s a lot of different music you can get off on but soul is more than that. It takes you somewhere else. It grabs you by the balls and lifts you above the shite.”

Predictably, the group begins with many squabbles and stumbles as they try to master a musical style that none of them have grown up with.  Rabbitte tries to build the bridge between their experience and the music during one session when he tells them, The Irish are the blacks of Europe, Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and the North Siders are the blacks of Dublin … so say it loud — I’m black and I’m proud!”

The band gets better as the crowds become larger and increasingly enthusiastic.  Before long, they are belting out the music of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and the Marvelettes with passion and sophistication.  It appears as though Jimmy was right all along–American soul is the perfect expression of the north Dublin working man.

The character of Jimmy Rabbitte’s unwavering belief in the magic of soul music and his devotion to the goal of bringing it to the consciousness of the Irish working man imbues this film with a joyfulness that is untarnished by all of the chaos that comes with trying to  manage an unruly and undisciplined group of musicians.  Watching them catch fire as a group and wow their audiences in the latter part of the film, makes every minute worth watching.  It may well be the best film about music that you have not yet seen.

Ok, that’s it.  That’s MY list.  Which of your favorite films about music did I miss?  Lay it on me!