The Artist and Addiction in A Star Is Born

A Star is Born is the love story between the successful country-musician Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) and the young, talented singer Ally (Stefani Germanotta). He wants to help her fulfill her potential and become successful. But their love relationship is tainted by Jack’s addiction to alcohol and drugs.

Although the movie is very grounded and focuses solely on the interaction between the characters, the whole setup is already charged with meaningful constellations. Jack’s father was a (apparently talented) musician and a drinker. Jack worships the memory of his deceased father, but doesn’t seem to fully ascertain the role his old man had in his life. It seems as if his father was Jack’s main inspiration to become a musician. But according to Jack’s older half-brother Bobbie (Sam Elliott), his father merely made Jack his “drinking buddy”, instead of actually supporting him.

Ally is in her mid-twenties, works in a hotel and still lives with her father. He used to sing aswell, and he keeps telling stories about how back in the days people would tell him that he was better than Frank Sinatra – stories at which his old friends keep laughing every single time like an old running gag. He keeps talking about how Ally has the “voice of an angel”, but “it’s not always the best singers that make it.” Ally, who gets visibly upset at these words, struggles with insecurities about her looks – which is exactly what her father is hinting at. Hence, while Jack’s family’s side of the story is one of success tainted by addiction, Ally’s family’s side of the story is one of unfulfilled potential.

Addiction and unfulfilled potential have one thing in common: They are both Resistance. Resistance, with a capital “R”.

Resistance is the inside force that every aspiring person experiences. Resistance aims at preventing the artist (or any other aspiring person) from doing what he or she is called to do. Resistance is a natural law, like gravity. The higher the calling, the higher the aspiration, the stronger the person will experience the force pulling her away from the right decisions. Resistance is essentially self-sabotage. It is the subconscious voice that urges us to make the tiny decisions that prevent us from doing the work and fulfill our calling. Resistance is what perpetually hands us an excuse to take the easy way out and not do the right thing. Thus, Resistance’s favourite ally is addiction. Why? Because addiction rewards us with incapacity. It provides us with an excuse to not do what we are called to do. Whatever a potential artist is addicted to, be it alcohol, relationships or any compulsive behavior: Resistance will summon it up right in the moment the artist is about to overcome his ego: a drink, a lover, a habit.

Jackson Maine is a musician and an alcoholic. After meeting Ally, he tries to quit drinking. He even sings a song entitled Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die. But change doesn’t happen “maybe”, and “maybe”, as we know, is a loser’s word. So he keeps relapsing, each time sabotaging his relationship with Ally.

The vicinity of music and addiction is so obvious that it requires no explanation. We’ve seen artists fall prey to addiction for decades. But we also understand that the musician, more than any other artist, is prone to addiction. This is because music is the most immediate, most intuitive, most emotional, least reflective form of art. Music can transport an atmosphere and emotions in a pure way, more so than paintings or literature. Hence, the musician is the artist who is the closest to melancholy.

The aim of art is to express what the soul can be and all of her existential conflicts. The musician is, essentially, the artist most exposed to the inner states and processes that all arts are essentially trying to express. The musician has less of the material world to balance him out against his emotions than the visual artist (painters and sculptors) does. The musician has less reflexion than the writing artist (poets, playwrights) to counterbalance his melancholy. The musician also has less of his own physicality to counterbalance negative emotions than performing artists (actors, dancers) do. Thus, the musician is most prone to negative emotions or negative states of mind. For, as we already stated elsewhere, negative emotions are a force of nature like gravity. Negative emotions are highly addictive, and they require effort and strength of will to be fought against.

The musician is, archetypically, the artist most susceptible to negative influences. It is not by happenstance that in Milos Forman’s Amadeus, Mozart is depicted as a lustful, immoderate and dirty-minded creature. Excess and self-indulgence are, archetypically speaking, the essential trait of the musician. Music itself, in its purest form, is boundless. It is pure intensity with no restraint. It enchants us so deeply that it makes us wish we could dwell in its perfect beauty forever. Music makes us detest (and reject) moderation. For the German composer Richard Wagner music was even “Todessehnsucht” (German for: “longing for death”, “deathwish” or “Eros Thanatos”), as he perfectly expressed in Tristan and Isolde.

In A Star Is Born, we find all these ingredients blended together: two musicians struggling with addiction, with self-sabotage, and finally with suicide – and all these elements are immersed in a dense atmosphere of “perfect love”.

Ironically, this is exactly where the trap lies. For their “perfect love” is in reality a codependent relationship. Jackson tries to fulfill himself by helping Ally become successful. But when she chooses to become successful in pop music, instead of rock/country music like him, he is disappointed. That’s why at every next level of Ally’s success, he lashes out. Ally, on the other hand, tries to save Jackson from his addiction, thereby sabotaging her own career. But she is unable to leave him, despite seeing the damage he is inflicting on her. What looks like a perfect love is in truth a trauma bond.

For broken people, love relationships and sex are just another addiction. Just like art is a way to free the artist of the own ego, and to elevate him into his higher self, in the exact same way drugs, sex and love can give us this sensation. As the German novelist Thomas Mann said: “The human being has no individuality in orgasm or death.” This is why the potential artist is more prone to addiction, and also more prone to unhappy love relationships. Most unaccomplished artists have a long story of failed romances. And the failed romances are just their own self-perpetuating shadow-life, with a strong tendence towards codependency. The aim of these failing romances is to distract the artist from growing, from fulfilling his potential and from doing the work necessary to become an artist.

Codependency is just another type of dependency. We find this thought beautifully expressed in Lisa Joy’s 2021 movie Reminiscence:

People like us don’t fall in love. We plummet to places deep and dark. But love? Love is the thing we climb to. Rung after rung we pull ourselves out of ourselves, reaching for something greater – if we could just hold on.

Reminiscence (2021, written and directed by Lisa Joy)

Jackson, unable to pull himself out of himself even after rehab, still keeps relapsing. In his heart solidifies the insight that he is weighing Ally down too much. He sees that he is hurting her and that he is sabotaging her from leading the life he wants her to enjoy. Feeling unable to overcome himself (his ego), he despairs. For the simplest kind of despair, as the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, is not wanting to be who we are. Instead of fixing his own life, he commits suicide, to enable her to lead the life he dreamt for her.

And here lies the unexpected twist of this story. Jackson’s suicide allows Ally to (painfully) overcome her codependency. By overcoming it, she finally becomes able to fully develop as an artist. The movie’s title, A Star Is Born, becomes allegoric. For stars, actual astronomic stars, are born out of nebulas, when atoms of light elements are squeezed under enough pressure. Ally becomes a star. But as we know, all growth is always born in pain. In this sense, Jackson’s death was necessary to make Ally become a star. But this doesn’t mean that it was the only way. The other way could have been if he had been strong enough to get his act together. But he chose the addict’s way, and, without saying it in a cynical sense, he took the easy way. Committing suicide, failing, staying incapacitated: These ways are easier than sorting ourselves out. That’s why human beings keep re-creating this same script over and over again. There is no shortage of examples for this phenomenon: Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, even Janis Joplin, if you want.

Resistance, self-sabotage, sin – whatever you want to call it, is a force of nature that incessantly tries to tear us down. The world is full of opportunities to hurt ourselves for the sake of creating incapacity. In most cases, it disguises itself as a solution, only to reveal its real face long after the short-term gratification. Resistance is inside of us – all of us –, and it aims to kill. When we see a person afflicted by self-loathing and self-inflicted damage, the proper question to ask is not: “Why did this happen to him?”. Instead, the right question to ask is: “Why is this not happening to me?” Because it most probably is, if we are not paying attention to it. As the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight puts it to the point: “Madness, as you know, is like gravity: All it takes is a little push.”

In the end of the movie, Ally sings the song Jackson had written about their love relationship. She has now become a star. In a sense, it is a bit like a star being born out of a black hole, still carrying the light elements of the black hole inside of itself, after the implosion. This is how a star is born.

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