A unified theory of Jackson Maine in "A Star Is Born"

November 3, 2019

(Originally published October 28, 2018)

Jackson Maine is full of shit. Once you figure that out, the latest version of “A Star Is Born” and what the film says about art begins to make sense. (We’re about to go over some plot points, so spoiler-phobes, be warned.)

One of the best analyses of the movie I’ve seen is on Vox, discussing how viewers’ priors can lead them to “side” with Jackson or Ally, depending on whether they believe in a rockist ideology or a poptimistic one, and I can see how some people are seduced by Jackson’s performances and proclamations, or Ally’s sheer talent creating a greater spectacle and finding a bigger audience than Jackson ever could. However, the film does come down on one side of this divide, and I’ll point to two obvious (to me) elements that weren’t spelled out but show this point of view pretty clearly.

First, the business about Jackson “stealing” his brother’s voice is wildly important. Remember that Jackson is full of shit. If he truly believes in the primacy of songwriting, he wouldn’t have changed his voice to sound like Bobby’s because, well, Jackson had something to say, dammit, and that should be all that matters.

The movie also goes to pretty extensive lengths to undermine Jackson’s belief that the singer-songwriter is the pinnacle of artistic achievement. Note that he’s presented as a hell of a performer and a professional musician with serious chops, which we can see in multiple concert scenes and even the Grammy sequence, when he’s able to hold his own playing guitar while drugged nearly out of his mind.

The movie is structured so that the most transcendent moment is when Ally joins Jackson on stage to sing “Shallow” for the first time. It’s the performance of “Shallow” that matters most, not the songwriting process, which happens entirely off-screen. Ally wrote the song before the events of the movie, and we don’t see Jackson doing any of his writing or arranging. The characters never reach that high again, and keep fighting to find it. Implicitly, they understand that the high of performing something great is what they’re after as artists.

Moreover, nobody else in the movie actually believes in this nonsense about having something to say as a songwriter being the measure of a great artist. Certainly, Ally’s manager doesn’t really care that much. Her friends at the drag bar love her when she’s singing “La Vie en Rose”. Ally’s father idolizes Frank Sinatra, who had, shall we say, a limited set of songwriting credits. Even Jackson’s brother, Bobby, makes a point of telling Ally that Jackson had been coasting as a performer until Ally came around.

All that’s to say Jackson doesn’t understand why he’s a star. He thinks there are a bunch of people with the talent to put on a great performance, while only a few people have what it takes to craft a song that’s meaningful to an audience, and he can do that well. But that’s probably because he’s such a gifted performer, himself, he doesn’t realize how hard it is for most artists to put on a good show. Note that we see Ally working and working and working on every element of her performances, but we never see Jackson rehearsing. He just kind of goes out there and does his thing, and it works well enough for him to get by. Imagine if he did work hard and cleaned up his act.

There’s also the little matter of Jackson’s actual songs. They’re great! Top-notch alt-country and rock folks worked on them. They stand up brilliantly on their own, and Jackson seems to believe the sentiments behind them. But there’s the little matter of “stealing” his brother’s voice. Again, that admission complicates Jackson’s contention that writing true songs is the most important thing an artist can do. What is an artist’s voice, anyway? Are Jackson’s songs undermined by his vocal posing? The film ends up suggesting that Jackson believes he failed to live up to his own standard of “digging into his fucking soul” because he was writing songs with a false voice.

Consider the song, “I’ll Never Love Again”, especially the part that Jackson sings for Ally, alone, just the two of them. He’s sitting at the piano, not playing a guitar. He’s wearing a plain blue t-shirt, not his chest-baring button-up. He has no jewelry. He’s just out of rehab, so he looks far less weathered than before. He also sings it in a completely different, higher, register than he does the rest of the movie. It’s his natural voice. This might be the first song that he truly means.

Which brings me to the second point. The film builds to this final song which, while not my cup of tea, personally, is presented as a climax of Jackson and Ally’s artistic partnership while summing up their romantic partnership. Ally sings in front of a live orchestra. Her hair is brown again. She’s not lip-syncing. So that means she’s “returning” toward and “validating” Jackson’s point of view about authentic artistry, right?

Not exactly. We shouldn’t forget that it’s Jackson’s song that Ally sings as she blows the roof off with her performance. And not to put too fine a point on it, but she’s digging deep into her fucking soul to sing it. She means it. She didn’t write the words, but there’s no mistaking how much she means what she’s singing. It’s her truth.

The film is poptimist in that it has Ally say something meaningful via a performance of a song she didn’t write, in a presentation that was broadly different from how Jackson probably would have performed it. The jump cut from Ally in her evening gown, standing on stage with a 50-piece orchestra, to Jackson in his t-shirt plunking away at a piano speaks to the process that went into creating that final song, and implies that process is the artistic act.

At the same time, the movie doesn’t completely discount the rockist ideology, seeing as Jackson pursued his art in that mode and created an oeuvre that was meaningful to millions. He may not have lived up to his exacting standards for authenticity, but he still made great art trying.

After all, Ally was able to become a star in both modes, first as a mysterious rock dream girl alongside Jackson and then as a pop diva under the label’s management. At the end, she finishes her song, stares into the camera, alone, her life at a turning point where anything can happen, and we’re meant to understand she can do whatever she wants, make great art in whatever mode she cares to try. She embodies stardom.