A Star is Born reignites the old art v/s commerce debate

I watched Bradley Cooper’s excellent directorial debut A Star Is Born starring himself and Lady Gaga in the lead roles.  I have not watched the previous iterations of this film and therefore cannot say how watching them would have influenced my reaction to this one.  However, going by the plot descriptions I read of the previous takes, Cooper does bring a different and significant insight to his telling of the tale, one that’s perhaps coming out of his being a passionate fan of music.

Cooper claims to have learnt singing and playing guitar for the film and if that is the case, then he has done a very fine job.  But that is not what is most interesting about the film.  What is interesting is the reaction of his character Jack Maine to the music that takes Lady Gaga’s Allys to instant stardom.

The previous versions would appear to have focused on the resentment of the older male protagonist to his lover’s success (which overshadows his own career).  This is the narration that aficionados of Indian cinema would also be familiar via Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Abhimaan.  There is just plain envy, no artistic critique involved.  But that is NOT what Jack Maine feels about what Allys is doing (though she obliquely accuses him of it in an angry argument).

It is the music itself that he is reacting to.  To him, Allys is the one-in-a-million voice that captivated him in a drag bar (yes!) and in whom he discovered great, untapped songwriting talent.  He is dismayed to find this talent, one whom he heartily promoted in his own shows, being ‘wasted’ in dance music with lyrics he regards as inane.

It is the classic art v/s commerce debate.  But, unlike many critics and journos who feel compelled to make politically correct plebeian arguments whilst discussing this, Cooper frames the debate in a manner that would soothe the hearts of musicophiles.  No, he says, the problem isn’t that it’s popular.  As a matter of fact, Jack Maine is very popular too in the beginning when he meets Allys for the first time.  He can’t get anywhere without getting recognised and photographed and this attention creeps out Allys.

No, the problem for him is this new music is not true to who Allys is.  She may not think so herself but she duly submits to a complete image makeover and learns to dance, all at the behest of a controlling manager who can take her to paradise but only if she absolutely doesn’t compromise on any of his instructions.  Individuality, anyone?

When he returns from Alcoholics Anonymous and Allys asks him why he didn’t show her a bunch of lyrics he had written for a romantic song, he says he was waiting for “you to be you again”.  And though there is no vocal acknowledgment of this on her part, she does start to work on one of his songs at his home out in the woods.

For those who only know Lady Gaga from the tranche of very successful dance music albums she made in the mid/late noughties, her heartfelt rendering of material leaning more to country or a more old school variety of pop and her fabulous dynamic range would be a pleasant surprise.  It shouldn’t be.  She had a natural talent for music, learnt piano from the age of four and even studied music at NYU.

Indeed, she chose to explore her voice in the context of more conventional music starting with her jazz album with Tony Bennett.

 

In Lady Gaga’s case, there’s nothing to suggest there was a bossy manager supervising and imposing her transformation from soulful singer-songwriter to manufactured pop idol.  She was just canny enough to know where the music industry was headed to.  But it’s doubtful that she would have landed a recording contract with a major label for an album with piano and old school sensibilities (i.e. the artist Allys comes across as before she turns pop star).  On similar lines, Fiona Apple delivered a multi platinum album with 1996’s Tidal before moving more and more into the singer-songwriter niche.   However, Apple was already making fairly singer-songwriter oriented stuff even on her first album.  It would appear that with the passage of time, the gap between songwriting and the requirements of chartbuster pop only grows ever wider.

But what’s wrong with making some money, right?  And if supposedly inane dance music is what the public wants, why not give them their heart’s desires?  Nothing wrong indeed.  But Cooper offers an alternative proposition right at the end (SPOILER ALERT).  I won’t explain under what circumstances but Maine commits suicide and his elder brother Bob arrives to condole Allys (who got married to Jack along the way but you worked that out already).  Bob tells her he heard a boy performing one of Jack Maine’s songs and was initially angry, thinking what did these people know about the real Maine anyway.  And then, he told himself that if a kid was singing Maine’s song, then maybe it had all been worth it after all.

That is the proverbial last laugh that the artist earns over the commercial star.  The legendary guitarist Alan Holdsworth died penniless and didn’t have a single hit album in his long career but friends and fans (numbering in the thousands) crowdfunded his funeral because they cherished his musical legacy.  J S Bach’s greatness was only fully appreciated a century later when Mendelssohn revived his work.   An alternative tune that Madan Mohan wrote for the song Dil Dhoondtha Hain for his last film Mausam found its way into the soundtrack of Veer Zara years later and became a hit under the name of Tere Liye!

In his parting shot, Cooper seems to be telling us that the soul that the artist has invested in his/her creation never truly dies, kinda like the Hindu concept of an atma that has a life beyond the body of one’s current birth.  Or maybe this is all just the biased reading of one who does appreciate musicians who prize soul above all.

In thus concluding the film, Cooper creates a new beginning, beyond death, for Jack Maine.  Though the film doesn’t depict anything like this, when Allys performs Maine’s last and unrecorded composition at this grand concert hall (couldn’t tell which one) as a tribute, the song probably goes viral on the internet and earns Maine a bonafide hit.  At last, in death, a star is born!

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2 Responses to “A Star is Born reignites the old art v/s commerce debate”

  1. Kshitij Rawat Says:

    Well written, Madan. Yet to see it, but hearing good things

  2. Madan Says:

    Thanks, Kshitij. You should! It’s great.

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