I didn’t love Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s new version of A Star is Born. It was well directed, well written and very well performed, it just wasn’t very original. This was perhaps inevitable considering it was the third big remake of a film that initially came out in 1937. There are two films in cinemas right now though that tell the same story of a young woman finding success in the music industry but do something new and interesting with it.
Wild Rose centres on Rose-Lynn, a twenty something woman from Glasgow who not only dreams but firmly believes she will one day travel to Nashville and make it big as a Country singer. All she needs is the money to get there. Like Lady Gaga’s Ally, she comes from a low income background but she has to manage her ambition around her two children and this brings a totally different angle. Wild Rose isn’t just a tale of someone wanting to go places then, it is about someone who has important reasons to stay at home, and the drama this brings is highly engaging and delicately moving. The other big difference between Wild Rose and the traditional telling of the A Star is Born idea is that this young woman’s opportunities are not graciously awarded to her by a man.
I don’t know it you’ve noticed but these films are never written about guys. There are plenty of movies about male singers struggling for success and stardom but they are all stories of real life people. Walk the Line, La Bamba, Ray, Control, The Buddy Holly Story, Nowhere Boy, Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, they all play variations on the same tune but here the narratives have all be set by true events. When someone sets out to create a new story along these lines though the protagonist is always female. Take Dreamgirls, Glitter, Begin Again, both Wild Rose and Vox Lux, every version of A Star is Born and throwing the net wider All About Eve and The Artist. The lead is always a lady. I don’t know if it is because people don’t like putting men in the disadvantaged and dependent position that these characters always start in but there is definitely some sort of trend here. Also, other than this film, it is always a bloke who gives them their break. This heavily reflects the Cinderella trope of men saving women and allowing them to enter their world because they are thin and pretty. To be fair many of the women in these films are empowered but they still wouldn’t be where they are without the fellas in their lives. (The Dreamgirls movie is an interesting case in this Cinderella analysis as the whole point of the original stage show was that Effie White is sidelined because she is not conventionally attractive. The movie then undermines this by casting Jennifer Hudson and asking her to put on a few pounds.)
Wild Rose really bucks this chauvinist trend. Yes, it puts a woman at the centre of things but she is not dependent on men at all. There is an important plot thread where she goes off to meet a well connected guy to help her get her foot in the door but the movie deliberately steers away from this idea and any assistance given to Rose-Lynn comes from female friends and family. In the end she is shown to be totally in charge of her own fate and that rarely happens in these films either.
There are actually numerous way in which Wild Rose plays with cinematic conventions with there being several ways the plot could go on multiple occasions. It is not an overly challenging watch but it appeals to your emotions throughout and how you respond to it may depend on your own life stage and circumstances. It is a really charming and inspiring movie and it was great performances from Jessie Buckley and Julie Walters.
Vox Lux doesn’t push the same genre or gender boundaries; Jude Law is the patriarchal gatekeeper here, but it mixes things up in other ways. From the posters and publicity you’d think that Natalie Portman is the star being born here but while she is excellent in the film she’s only in about half of it, and the weaker half at that. Before Portman takes centre stage protagonist Celeste is played by seventeen year old Raffey Cassidy. The early part of the film picks up the character after an unimaginable but all too familiar tragedy and shows how she willingly capitalises on this to achieve fame and money. All the typical grooming and training scenes as a raw talent is shaped by others into the personality and ultimately the person she will become take on a different slant when that individual is essentially a child. Even beyond this approach director Brady Corbet adds in effective little quirks such as a dry, cynical narration provided by Willem Dafoe and rapidly replayed home video style footage to tell the story. These stylists choices allowing, it all feels quite honest and genuine.
Then having done something refreshing it then kind of does nothing at all. When it leaps forward the best part of two decades Natalie Portman’s Celeste is a damaged, dangerous, substance addled prima donna and with there being less story to tell here it becomes more of a character study. Interestingly, like Lady Gaga in last year’s A Star is Born, the OTT, artistically compromised but phenomenally successful singer the lead becomes is a lot like Lady Gaga, at least on stage, and the self obsessed addict she becomes off stage feels more familiar in different ways.
Portman’s performance is a bit of a revolution and her singing of the new songs Sia has written for the soundtrack is impressive but it’s Cassidy’s movie and it’s this part that shakes things up. It doesn’t help the comparison that Cassidy also appears in the latter half playing Celeste’s daughter but this does make a statement about the cyclical and repetitive nature of these kinds of stories. A statement that refreshingly is challenged, to varying extents, by these two films.