Spoiler Warning: The following post contains numerous plot details for the film, A Star Is Born. I encourage you to see the film before reading any further. If you continue reading, multiple plot points will be ruined for you. Thank you.
Are you happy in this modern world?
My wife and I took some vacation time from work yesterday to have lunch together and see a movie. It was a rare weekday date for us while our son was in daycare. She picked me up from my office, we ate lunch at Wahlburgers in the Mall of America (she refrained from asking our waiter if he ever met Donnie), and went to see A Star Is Born at the mall’s new theater palace.
I stayed away from reviews because I knew I wanted to see the film, so I entered the theater with a blank slate. I knew there were prior versions of the same film, but I could not recall too many details about them. I assumed A Star Is Born would provide a compelling story and engaging music. I’ve found Lady Gaga to be an intriguing and impressive artist over the years; for example, I respected her dedication to a performance during the 2011 MTV Music Awards when she took on another persona and COMMITTED to that as she launched into You & I with Queen’s Brian May. I remember watching that, and just finding the whole thing so epic; the BALLS it took to do that. The creativity required to generate the idea and the fearlessness to execute it was inspiring. I recall showing it to my wife and saying, “You should watch this. It’s amazing.”
Meanwhile, I’ve been on board with Bradley Cooper since his performance as Sack in Wedding Crashers; probably the most I’ve ever laughed inside a movie theater. He’s provided quality performances in other movies too, and I gleaned from kinda-sorta, not looking at headlines that he took this movie with Lady Gaga very seriously.
So I had high hopes for A Star Is Born, and I assumed it would have something important to say.
My guard was down. I was not prepared.
I can only imagine what it would be like to see this film without living through the experience of my brother ending his life last year. You ever wish you could “unsee” a movie so it could surprise you all over again? I’d love to “unsee” The Shawshank Redemption, The Usual Suspects or Fight Club so I could experience that “ah-ha” moment all over again.
I imagine A Star Is Born would still be a powerful film to watch had my brother not decided to end his life. However, I only know this reality where I sat in my seat yesterday watching the final portion of the film – knowing and dreading what was unfolding before my eyes.
I am happy this movie exists, and I hope it increases the volume on a conversation about depression and mental health that is still much too quiet in this country and worldwide.
And in the bad times I fear myself
A Star Is Born is captivating from the opening scene, as Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga lose themselves in the characters on screen. It feels earnest and genuine even though it focuses on the vagaries of the music scene and industry. Sam Elliot (god bless him) provides a dose of humility and gravitas, and Andrew Dice Clay appears as Lady Gaga’s father, which I found amusing because I grew up laughing at Dice’s material and immediately thought of him during Gaga’s Jo Calderone routine from the MTV Music Awards back in 2011. Apparently, Dice thought of himself too after her performance – and now they made a film together.
The world is a strange place!
Bradley Cooper is Jackson Maine, and I mean that phrase in every way it can be intended. In the film, he sings, performs and portrays that character so well. I enjoyed Walk The Line as much as anyone else, and Cooper’s performance goes way beyond imitation or trying to sound like a singer. It’s wildly impressive.
And we get to watch Jack find and destroy himself repeatedly throughout the film. And goddamn if it did not hit close to home. My brother was not a famous rock star; he was a star high school athlete that achieved Local Legend status as a teenager. I lived through decades of him falling and bouncing back all while being a functional alcoholic. He did not make it as an athlete in college and dropped out before graduating. He found a new calling as a professional firefighter and earned the respect of his crew. He was the biggest personality in the room with the most energy, sharpest wit, highest constitution, and the most-biting tongue – all of which typically inspired loyalty among his peers.
He also could piss off his friends and family, and sometimes got knocked out when he goaded the wrong person. We verbally fought at times throughout our lives, especially as I got older and realized that his drinking and antagonist behavior wasn’t normal. But I was always his younger brother; what did I know?
Who was I to tell him about right and wrong?
He met someone and there were issues in the relationship. His girlfriend saw the same behaviors I did, and we talked about those patterns often. They still got married, and after some struggles, had two boys in quick succession. He loved and enjoyed his sons, and did everything to provide for them.
His priorities never seemed to be set on his marriage, and that eventually ended in divorce. He attempted to get help for his mental health issues. I encouraged his efforts, and remember feeling crushed when an alcohol treatment center sent him away because – and this is according to him, “They told me I don’t have an alcohol problem.”
He religiously worked two jobs, and coached his son’s baseball and football teams. His life revolved around his jobs, his boys, and his friends. There was an endless routine to it, and then the routine started to break down. First the separation then divorce. Then his salary was reduced and his hours at the firehouse were drastically changed. Then his health started to fail him.
There’s a scene late in A Star Is Born when Jack is confronted by Ally’s (Lady Gaga’s character) manager, Rez (played magnificently by Rafi Gavron). At this point, Jack is fresh out of a residential treatment program for substance abuse and is so far living a sober life; he seems to be getting his collective shit together. Rez informs Jack that his past actions have damaged Ally’s career, that it took monumental efforts to keep her thriving in the music industry, and tells Jack it’s only a matter of time before Jack relapses and further ruins Ally’s career.
The interaction is devastating. My immediate thought was that Rez is this generation’s Burke (Paul Reiser from Aliens) in terms of being the most-hated character in a popular film. His motives feel sinister, and his speech takes the light from Jack’s eyes, which Cooper brilliantly portrays on screen. You can literally see him contemplating suicide in that scene.
It was horrible to watch.
This is going to be hard to type; I’m going to do it anyway….
The next segment of the film was me knowing what was coming, and going through so many mental gymnastics to remain engaged in the movie while still experiencing a swarm of emotions.
Jack decides to end his life; he doesn’t want to be a burden to Ally. He thinks he’ll screw up again, and sees suicide as the only path to relieve his suffering while avoiding making things worse for Ally. The reasoning behind these actions is all too familiar to me.
As Ally is getting ready to perform on stage and Jack is back home preparing to hang himself, I wanted there to be another outcome. I wanted Jack to win.
I wanted to win.
“Just this once. Let someone make a different choice. Let him show up on stage, and let them sing Shallow together. Let me shed some fucking tears out of joy and relief instead of grief and sorrow for a change. Let this story be different. Please!”
I’m off the deep end
The remainder of the film portrays how Ally and others in Jack’s life respond to his suicide. Jack’s older brother, Bobby (portrayed by Sam Elliott), gives a speech to Ally that I have given to others several times since my brother ran in front of a train about 18 months ago. Bobby tells Ally that Jack’s suicide is not her fault, or the fault of anyone else, “It’s Jack’s fault!”
I sent a text earlier this month to a close friend of my brother and I with the following, “His death isn’t your fault. Or mine. Or anyone else’s.”
I attempted to joke with my wife after the movie by saying that I want Sam Elliott to swing by my life once in a while to impart sage wisdom, and that I’ve wanted this since he did the same sort of thing in Mask and Road House back in the 1980s while I was just a child.
The notion of blame and fault and guilt is so strong that I’m writing about it in relation to a movie I saw yesterday. It’s been well over a year, and I still pick apart some of the final conversations with my brother.
I thought back to the scene between Jack and Rez, and I suddenly didn’t think of Rez as Burke from Aliens anymore. I thought back to the specifics of what Rez told Jack, and it felt like nothing he said was inaccurate. He spoke harshly, yes. It was the truth. While you might not agree with the artistic directions Rez steered Ally into, he and others helped her navigate into a position of pop stardom, and Jack was a man that displayed a long history of substance abuse and bad decisions. Rez was looking out for Ally, and asserted that point of view to Jack.
Of all the people to identify with in the film, I found myself relating to the closest thing the film has to a villain. Yikes, what does that mean?
It means I still harbor a great deal of guilt. One of the final conversations I had with my brother was about him worrying that oldest son was not hitting well in baseball, “He’s just not seeing the ball well.” He kept talking about this, and I tried to lighten the mood by joking that my brother was a pitcher and not the best hitter. I also mentioned that it was likely difficult for his sons to perform in front of him because he is such a local legend in our hometown, and his sons know about his past exploits and the high expectations he has for them. I encouraged him to be patient with his sons and talk to them about the pressure and anxiety they might feel.
During the drive home from our date yesterday, I said to my wife, “I hope my brother didn’t hear me like Jack heard Rez.”
I was driving in my car this morning and played Shallow. Gaga’s voice soars, and tears were streaming down my face.
The last time I cried while driving was a few months ago while Audioslave’s I Am The Highway was playing. That song is performed, not coincidentally, by Chris Cornell, a bonafide rock star that ended his life a few months before my brother did the same.
The sadness. The guilt. The second guessing. The longing for another chance.
A Star Is Born ignited all of that once again for me. I’m sure it will not be the last time in my life that a piece of art affects me in such a strong way.
I just wonder how others that have not survived a loved one committing suicide perceive the film. I wonder if they “get it” or feel it on a similar level.
I hope they’re inspired to do something to improve their mental health, to improve the mental health of others, and to improve the mental health treatment system in this country.
We’re far from the shallow now
A Star Is Born is a powerful film. There will be other fine films this year, and I’ll try to consume as many of them as possible. As of now though, give this movie all the Oscars. ALL OF THEM. Cooper, Gaga, Elliott, maybe even Clay. These felt like real people.
Jack certainly felt real.
I miss him everyday.