Powerful yet disturbing version of a familiar tale
Just sat through the encore extended length screening and still bawling. Two remarkable performances by singer turned actor Gaga, and actor turned singer Cooper as the bright young talent and her doomed alcoholic mentor and lover.
I've seen and mildly enjoyed the 3 previous versions, but this one truly wrings the heartstrings. It's less about fame than about the cost of addiction and whether or not to stick with an addicted loved one. Jackson Maine is by far the most sympathetic and lovable version of this character; he is genuinely proud and supportive of Ally (for the most part), and genuinely kind and sweet with almost everyone else (with one notable exception which we'll get to in a moment). Gaga manages what none of the other 3 actresses in this role (Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland or (ugh) Barbra Streisand) achieved: conveying the self-doubt, insecurity and gradual growth in confidence needed to become a star. Ally and Jack are heartbreakingly tender with each other; the look in Cooper's eyes as he summons the strength for their final farewell is gut wrenching.
So...good messages, bad messages. Well, there's the obvious bad one central to the plot: suicide is never the answer: it isn't romantic and it is NOT the best way to "take care of" a loved one. Not only is this unspeakably cruel to the person left behind, it's also insulting. Rather than facing their situation together and giving Ally the choice of whether or not to give up her career for him, Jack makes the decision for her. All suicide survivors face a crushing burden of guilt; to pretty much spell out "I killed myself so you could succeed" would be brutal.
I was torn about the supporting characters. ASIB falls into the tokenizing cliche of showing the straight white, young protagonists are good people by surrounding them with LGBTQ, older, people of color. Ally's best friend is gay and Latino, she hangs out with black drag queens who all adore her; her dad and his mixed race gang of buddies are whimsically retro with their cigarettes and potbellies. Jackson's best friend is a slow talkin' black guy prone to uttering pearls of homespun wisdom around the kitchen table, surrounded by his supportive wife (who is remarkably sanguine about her husband's plastered buddy turning up in the rosebushes) and cute-as-the dickens daughter. That said, all these characters are entertaining and well acted and give us a sense of the lives the central couple will miss out on.
The most troubling side character is Jackson's older half brother Bobby, played by the gravelly and pugnacious Sam Elliot. It takes a while to piece together, but it's clear they both had a troubled relationship with their alcoholic father, and that at some point the brothers were performing (and drinking) together. There is plenty of blame to go around, but in one of the film's most poignant moments, Jack apologizes to Bobby and admits that "Dad wasn't the one I idolized. It was you".
I wouldn't exactly say this story has good messages, but it could provoke some deep conversations with teens about the power and degradation of addiction, and whether love alone can cure it. Jacks' "mean drunk"cruelty to Ally is frighteningly real. She plans to sacrifice her career to save him, so he sacrifices his life to save her. Did either of them make the right choice? What if they had been honest with each other instead of both lying? Should Ally have gotten involved with Jack when his problems were so obvious? And what responsibilities did all those charming supporting characters have, (other than providing a colorful backdrop)? Is Bobby right when he claims, "Know whose fault this was? Jack's. Not yours, not mine, just Jack's".
Other concerns: a LOT of drinking and drug use (duh) but never glamorized, and with the inevitable results made clear. Some chastely filmed partial nudity and implied sex. Punches are thrown; f-bombs are dropped. The moments leading up to Jackson's suicide are disturbing, though the actual death is not shown.
But on the plus side, a soul stirring romance told through soaring music in several genres: country rock, pop dance tunes, Edith Piaf, and unforgettable power ballads. You will yearn for a happy ever after for these two characters, even though you know it is not meant to be.