Movie Review: In A Star Is Born, The Music Industry Culture of Fame Takes a Dark Toll on Its Artists’ Mental Health (CW: substance abuse, mental illness, suicide, and spoilers)

Today I was bored at work, so I looked up a bunch of articles about musicians and mental health. My mentor and I were talking yesterday about me having a career in music and they told me that while I should have big dreams, I should also be realistic because a music career was not only hard but also incredibly lonely. At first I didn’t think I could watch A Star is Born in the evening, because for me, watching gut-wrenching drama films at night before I go to bed is like having me watch Paranormal Activity at two o’clock in the morning (not that I would ever have the confidence to go see something that scary, let alone that late at night, or let alone at all. I am squeamish to a T). But alas, here I am writing this review, and no tear duct has been shed from my orbs.

I wanted to cry. I really did. However, I was so busy digesting all of the tough-love lessons of the film that I really couldn’t elicit any emotion other than a sense of unfairness that I feel about how the music industry treats women and especially people with mental health issues. I could no longer just sit and cry because I knew my tears would do nothing to address the real issue that the film portrays: mental illness and the stigma associated with getting help. So I took to writing this review to raise awareness of the issue, to do my part for my community. Like I mentioned earlier, I was deeply curious about how the music community was addressing mental health issues, and especially in the classical music community because the business of being an orchestra musician can feel like a total nightmare when you struggle with any kind of mental health issue. When you prepare for an audition, you are literally shaking in your boots, but it’s more than just mere nervousness. It feels like that dark cloud over your mind is going to swallow you up and prevent you from performing your best, let alone living your life. So after taking a hiatus from any heavy performing or auditioning, I decided to take matters into my own hands and do my own research on the topic of mental health and musicians, because Lady Gaga, at the Grammys this year when she won for her song “Shallow” from the movie, told it like it was: a lot of artists deal with mental health issues and we need to not only support each other through our mental health issues, but also seek out help for our mental health issues as well.

I completely agree, and so it’s no wonder that, when I Googled “mental health and musicians” today I came across so many stories about how singer Justin Bieber had to take a break from touring so he could spend more time with his wife Hailey Baldwin and also take care of himself, or that rapper Big Sean had to cancel touring last year to get help for his anxiety and depression. Honestly, it’s weird as a fellow musician who also struggled with mental health issues to say this, but I would have never thought either of these folks struggled with mental health issues, but it goes to show how the entertainment industry still has a ways to go in how it churns out musicians and then spits them out to struggle through their issues alone. Somehow this seems dangerously toxic to me, and it’s why I am glad I am not yet a professional musician. I spent the longest time trying to figure out what my mission as a musician was, and I think, more than ever, I need to use my music to address the problem of mental health stigma. Yes, more people are becoming aware of the psychological toll of fame and celebrity, but still, films such as A Star is Born clearly show that there is a long, long way to go.

The film opens with a performance by Jackson Maine, a country rock singer who has had a long career on the road. We see him pop some pills before he gets onstage, and while he gives an electrifying performance, seeing those pills presents just the beginning of a very disturbing, grim and realistic portrait of the life of an artist struggling with depression and addiction. Jackson, throughout the film, is constantly drinking, smoking and, later on, snorting cocaine. Ally, on the other hand, is a struggling singer who works as a server at a high-maintenance restaurant. When I first saw this scene, I immediately thought about the film La-La Land, where we see Mia working as a barista and dealing with a boss who could care less about her dreams of becoming an actress. When her boss schedules her on a day she has an audition, Mia tries to tell her she has an audition and can’t work, her boss tells her she doesn’t care and to skip the audition so she can cover her shifts. Jackson goes into a drag bar and watches Ally perform “La Vie En Rose”. He is so moved by the performance that he goes to her dressing room to meet her and they immediately hit it off. When they go to a bar afterwards to hang out, he shares a very important message about what it takes to be a true artist. Ally tells him she doesn’t think she will make it because everyone keeps telling her she isn’t pretty enough to be famous, and that men constantly tell her she is a good singer but that she doesn’t have the look of a singer. This shows how women in the music industry are pressured to look a certain way and further suggests why it’s so important for young women to embrace their beauty as it is so that other people don’t try and tell them differently. But Jack tells her that she looks beautiful and even says that he struggles with tinnitus but still made it as a musician. He says a quote that really stuck with me throughout the film, and that is that “talent comes everywhere. Everybody’s talented…but having something to say, and the way to say it so people listen to it, that’s a whole other bag. Unless you try and get out there and do it, you’ll never know.” It made me think about how in any career, women typically wait until they have all of the qualifications before applying for a job (I’m one of those ladies) and suffer from impostor syndrome. Ally thinks she cannot be successful, but Jack thinks she can.

Update from the next day….(aka I have had more time to digest this film after pondering it day and night. It literally kept me up).

The movie also raised some very important thoughts for me, and I’m going to just list them in bullet points because frankly, I am choking up now thinking of the film even though I wasn’t before, and I need to get these out here before I get stressed. After researching mental health and musicians more today, I decided to just take a break from research and just write my thoughts. It has been cathartic to do so, and it’s really going to keep me from thinking about how good but also how stressful this movie was.

  • What is the meaning of pop music? In the film a famous recording producer, Rez Gavron, who offers her several opportunities after seeing her perform. But then he has her go from doing country rock music to dancing hip-hop. While I can see why Ally would keep an open mind and go for these opportunities, it feels as if she lost a huge part of herself being on such a big label such as Interscope Records. And this is a problem, because she used to know herself pretty well enough to keep her day job while she did music, but when she went big she tried to tell Rez to not mess up her sense of self and make her something she isn’t, but Rez wants her to stick with his vision and not her own, so he tells her to dye her hair and has her live in this super extravagant living space. Which is nice at the beginning, but then Jackson loses faith in Ally and goes further into himself, telling her that all this pop fame isn’t her. Then again, in real life, the orange hair and hip-hop electronic dance moves are classic Lady Gaga.
  • Can two artists co-exist? In the film La La Land, Mia is an actress and Sebastian is a jazz musician. They try to make it work, and Mia quits her job at the coffee-shop to write her own plays (which is a risky move, as the film shows, because no one comes to the play she directed and she gives up). But then Sebastian gets an opportunity to play with his friend, who tells him he needs to play other genres besides jazz because he can barely afford to pay his rent by playing jazz gigs alone. Sebastian tells Mia he’s going on tour, but then Mia tells him she wants to stay and pursue her acting career. The movie shows that if Mia and Sebastian got married, it would be really hard. And in A Star in Born, this idea is taken a step further because Jack and Ally do get married, but then as Ally becomes more famous and mainstream, Jack loses popularity and Bobby even replaces him with a younger musician at his performance. Jack soon loses faith in himself and becomes more involved with substances. When Ally wins a Grammy for Best New Artist, Jack drunkenly comes up on stage and accidentally urinates on himself while she’s giving her speech. It is then that he is sent to treatment and Rez tells him to stay away from Ally because his marriage to her nearly ruined her career.
  • Women are held at very stressful standards in the pop music industry. Ariana Grande says that sporadically releasing music has proven to be more helpful for her mental health than following the incredibly structured high pressure plan that record labels expect female pop artists to adhere to. Ally, in the film, gets all these opportunities to be a star, but she never really gets to express herself anymore. At first she was very down-to-earth, but all it took was some egotistical micromanagey guy (aka Rez) to control her image for her. In one scene, Ally is recording a demo and the producers behind the screen keep telling her to start over because she is nervous, but then Jack has them bring out a piano and she just naturally becomes comfortable playing it with him. I still think it is interesting that Ally needs a man to boost her self-worth though; what if Ally had a female mentor? Would it have been a different relationship or the same? I’m not saying I hated the dynamic between Jack and Ally at all; I thought it was sweet. Also, Bradley Cooper directed this film and him and Lady Gaga wrote the songs, so I ain’t mad. 🙂 I am just thinking of other theoretical possibilities for the story line. I thought about the film Cadillac Records, and how in the film Leonard Chess controlled much of Etta James’ career, when in reality Etta James held her own in an industry that was macho. Leonard treats Etta as if she was irrational and angry all the time, and she tries to push back against all the pressure that the industry puts on her. So did she really need Leonard to make her feel accomplished? This is just a parallel I made watching A Star is Born.
  • Is suicide really the fault of musicians? Or does the overall industry play a part in it, too? At the end Jack commits suicide after breaking his sobriety and finding his old bottle of pills (this was the part that was extremely difficult to watch), and Ally is crying and Bobby tells her that it was Jack’s fault, not her or Bobby’s fault, that he committed suicide. Was it solely his fault though? Sometimes I think people who have never gone through mental health issues assume that it’s the musician’s fault when they hurt themselves, but a huge part of me told me that the culture of the music industry, not merely Jack’s personal history with drug abuse and depression, played a more-than-significant role in his suicide. We need to stop perpetuating this idea that “oh, we couldn’t control it, it just happened”. The music industry is incredibly competitive and even encourages people to party hard, do drugs and drink when they are stressed. The constant pressure of celebrity is what drove Avicii, Mac Miller, Amy Winehouse to their deaths. I’m not saying a glass of wine or two is bad. However, substance abuse is a whole nother animal, and throughout the film I couldn’t help but be pissed when Ally, Bobby, Rez and everyone else told Jack he needed to “clean up his act”. I know it’s hard to support folks when they struggle with something so subjective and deeply rooted in their personal life, but there needs to be better measures for how to address mental health issues in the music community. I just found this part incredibly frustrating as a musician who struggled with mental health issues before.
  • Hearing loss is huge in the music industry. Bobby has Jack put on a pair of earphones for his tinnitus, and Jack, under the influence of hard drugs, tells him he can go stick them somewhere else. I idealized the idea of playing at loud concerts, but because I have sensitive ears, I think I will pass on not wearing some kind of protection for my ears.
  • Being a tortured artist isn’t cute or funny. Nico Muhly talks about this in an interview he did about classical musicians and mental health, and how we need to stop perpetuating this romanticized idea of the tortured composer or musician or artist in general. While a lot of artists suffer from mental health issues, we cannot let our mental health issues try to define who we are as artists because it can lead to our self-destruction and potentially deaths. A Star is Born clearly shows how destructive it is to perpetuate the tortured artist myth.
  • Is fame worth it? I know in real life, Lady Gaga has achieved so many things, but she still gets idolized. I used to idolize all these famous people, but I realize that they are human, and this film shows how dangerous it is to deify regular human beings who just happened to pursue their passion for years and earned money from it. In one poignant scene, a heckler interrupts Ally and Jack’s conversation to tell him how he thinks Jack looks like someone he really hates, and pressures Jack to take a photo with him so he can show his ex-wife. Ally then beats the heckler up, and they escape to a grocery store so Jack can get some peas for Ally’s smashed hand. The store clerk, while checking out the peas, stealthily takes a photo of Jack and Ally while they are talking, but the lady’s not quick enough and they catch her in the act. While Jack treats it as if it was just a part of being famous for so long, Ally is, rightfully, not okay with it. This really taught me that if I meet anyone famous, such as Bradley Cooper or Lady Gaga, in any common public place, it would be more than stupid to chase them down for an autograph or take a photo of them without their consent. It would be just a straight-up invasion of privacy. Most, if not all, celebs aren’t thinking, “Well, if more people took my photo while I was out with my kids, I would feel better than I already feel”. Most, if not all, “celebs” are just human beings who love what they do and treat their music-making and film-making as a job like any other, and it is a job because it’s their profession that takes up most of their time. So it’s a waste of their creative space to ask them for autographs–they want to just live their lives. So again, I will try and be mindful of this now that I have seen this film.

As I am now emotionally exhausted from writing this review, I leave you with two clips, one of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper playing “Shallow” and another of her performing it at the Grammys. Both are performances which I will have to take a hiatus from listening to because even just thinking about them is making me quite tearful now that I have seen this incredibly tearful movie. I cried watching both of these performances when they came out and haven’t stopped crying. They put so much soul into it that it’s hard to not appreciate their hard work.

Overall, excellent film and one that will stick with me for a very, very long time. Gosh, I’m already tearing up just thinking about it. It seriously deserved all the awards that it received this year. This review, no matter how long, can never convey how amazing and heartfelt and deep this film was for me. Thank you Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. I know I should see the original versions, I was just too impatient to see this film.

A Star is Born. 2 hr 14 min. Rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse.

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