Falling Star*

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* There are spoilers in this blog post.

It took me a while to get around to seeing the latest iteration of A Star Is Born. I’d seen two of the previous three versions and figured I knew the story backwards and forwards. And I was somewhat right. The Oscar-nominated fourth version doesn’t really break new ground except to give us some beautiful new ballads in the Lady Gaga oeuvre and to make us aware that actor Bradley Cooper has some musical chops.

But as Cooper, who directed, co-wrote, and starred in the film, says in a special features extra, there is something so timeless and powerful about this story of gaining and losing stardom, of love against the odds. In each of the four versions of A Star Is Born, a movie or music star falls in love with an unknown talent, whose star begins to rise as his begins to fall.

The latest version of Star is particularly good at depicting the ruthlessness of the entertainment world, which deprives a person of privacy and is pitiless when that star fumbles. In a chilling scene towards the end of the movie, Ally’s manager tells her addict husband Jack, “We’re not friends,” and goes on to chastise him for jeopardizing Ally’s career and to assure him she’d be better off without him, indirectly impelling Jack to take his own life.

The film also shows that the business side of artistic creation can sometimes be damaging to the art. Jack becomes disgusted with the pop star package Ally has become, with dyed hair and backup dancers and inane songs about sexiness. Although his hurtful criticism is tinged with envy and fueled by alcohol, he does have a point. The Ally he fell in love with, musically and personally, seems compromised by the demands of fame.

Artists often pay a high price for their gifts. Many of our greatest painters, musicians, composers, and writers have been tormented by mental illness or substance addiction. They have often lost any semblance of a family life as they became consumed by both their artistic visions and their demons. Perhaps those demons are what compelled them to become artists in the first place.

In any event, A Star Is Born shows us the high price of stardom, the loneliness of artistic minds, and the choices we make for love. While I’m not sure we needed yet another version of this timeless story, I did enjoy the soulful journey taken by these two characters as portrayed by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.

And I’m still haunted by the lines of the song Ally and Jack sing together:

When the sun goes down
And the band won’t play
I’ll always remember us this way

 

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The Soundtrack of Our Lives

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The other day I heard “Shallow,” a Grammy-award winning song from the movie A Star Is Born. I must confess to having been underwhelmed. Maybe that’s because I haven’t yet seen the film and thus have no context for appreciating the song.

It has often been true for me that the associations I make with a particular song affect how much I enjoy it. For example, I had always found John Lennon’s “Imagine” to be a bit of a dirge. Then I heard it played at the very end of the excellent, devastating Cambodian war film The Killing Fields. As the hero walks across a field to the safety of a Red Cross refugee camp, Lennon’s words took on new poignance for me: “Imagine there’s no country. … Nothing to kill or die for. … Imagine all the people living life in peace.”

A similar example is the 80s song “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds. Like many tunes of that time period, it sounded to me as if the lead singer were under water. But when the song closed out the popular John Hughes film The Breakfast Club, it felt more like an anthem for the youth of America.

In that era, MTV was extremely influential in the wedding of the visual with the auditory. The station began as a platform for music videos with VJs instead of DJs introducing and commenting on the current hits. Many actresses and models got their breaks after being featured in these popular videos. And once you’d seen the music video, it was impossible not to think of the images when you heard the song on the radio.

Many songs bring back memories that make them more special than they might otherwise have been to us. I will never forget cruising around aimlessly with my high school friends as “The Boys Are Back in Town” blared from the car stereo. Similarly, songs like “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Evil Woman,” and anything by Boston take me back to my freshman year in college when I was just learning to be on my own. The song “Brick House” always conjures a smile as I picture myself with my good friend Barb out on the dance floor showing off our moves. And I will always be grateful to the Eagles for picking me up with the song “Already Gone” as I was coming to terms with a romantic breakup.

Moving forward musically in time, I have found a satellite radio station called PopRocks that brings me back to the early 2000s when my kids were just starting to get into popular music. One day back then I was driving my daughter and a couple of her friends somewhere when the Eminem song “Without Me” came on the radio. To my total surprise, the girls started belting out all the words to Slim Shady’s popular rap song. I knew then that the days of Disney-themed pop were behind us.

Music will always offer a backdrop to the times of our lives, good and bad. Our associations based on movies, television, and our own life experiences form a powerful connection to particular songs and even sometimes entire albums. I’ll have to give “Shallow” another shot after I see the movie from which it originates. It just may become one of my favorites.

 

 

The Gift of Music

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Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
– William Congreve

My childhood piano instructor was an exacting teacher. Under Mrs. Leonard’s tutelage, I learned correct posture and hand position (“like holding an egg in each hand”), keeping time (The metronome came in handy), and how to read music (Every good boy does fine). My younger sister and I were expected to be prompt and prepared each week for our lessons.

To that end, my mother enforced a strict 30-minute-per-day practice policy. Our piano was in the basement, and my mother was recently recalling how my sister and I would dawdle up and down the steps, checking the clock over and over again to see if our time was up.

Back then, I did not realize that my parents were giving my sister and me a timeless and treasured gift. None of my other siblings were afforded piano lessons, although my brother did take up guitar and saxophone for a time. Yet it wasn’t until years later when I resumed lessons that I appreciated the gift of music.

Studies have shown that learning to play an instrument enhances some neural connections in the brain and can lead to better aptitude at subjects such as math. Recently, I read about an elderly man with advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Bert Rose had been a professional pianist for more than 60 years before succumbing to this cruel disease. He can no longer remember much of anything, including his heyday performing with such stars as Debbie Reynolds and Brooke Shields. Yet when he sits down at the piano, he can still play all the old standards he once performed for audiences a bit larger than the residents at his nursing home. (Source: Chicago Tribune, March 8, 2015)

My current piano teacher talks about muscle memory and encourages me to stick with difficult pieces, knowing that eventually, playing them will become automatic. That same muscle memory must come into play for Bert Rose. And the gift is that it brings him out of his memory fog and uplifts the spirits of the other nursing home residents.

As I was growing up, I was surrounded by music – my mother’s singing, my father’s records playing on the “hi-fi,” my sisters’ harmonizing while washing dishes on Christmas Eve. My sister and I were called upon occasionally to play a duet on the piano for our family.

Each time I sit at my piano, I am so grateful for the gift of music and all the joy it brings to my life.