A Star is Born: A Two-Note Love Story

*SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the film yet, but plan to and don’t want to know the end, then DO NOT READ. But, be sure to come back and read after you have seen it! 

Ok, you’ve been fully warned.

Upon seeing the first preview for this film in the spring, I was all in. The music and acting were promising to be of a caliber that Hollywood had not seen in awhile. I was able to attend an early screening of A Star is Born and was completely ready to dive into this musical and emotional love story.

Or so I thought.

Guys – this movie wrecked me! And I brought my unsuspecting friend straight down into the depths of this emotional pit with me right there in the theater. When the credits rolled, we just sat there in silence, wiping our tears, unwilling and unable to move. Since then, we have talked over and over about the story, the music, the acting, and all of the beautiful nuances that left us and most other viewers completely bereft yet fulfilled all at the same time.

When I watch or experience something for the first time, I am typically watching with a heightened level of anticipation because of the fear of the unknown. After I know that I know what is going to happen, I want to watch again through a new set of eyes and ears; a more relaxed, tuned-in set of eyes and ears that are able to experience things at a deeper level because the anxiety of the unknown has now faded. Yes, I realize this is a hard way to experience real-life events, seeing as they can never fully be replicated, so I have to work very hard to “be in the moment” in these situations. But I digress.

The Greatest Showman? Forget it. Once I knew all turned out okay in the end, I was all-in. I lost count after seeing it in the theater 7 times. But A Star is Born has a different ending than that of The Greatest Showman. The overall feel is heavier; more raw, and much, much darker; and the ending is not neatly packaged with a bow on top. So seeing this movie in the theater again was going to leave me wrecked – again – but since it was nearly impossible to place the story and the music out of my mind and far from my thoughts, I ended up back in the theater. Again.

If you’re reading, you’ve seen the film (or you are purposefully ruining the film for yourself!). The movie was filled with intense relationships, a small look at life on the road for a touring musician, incredible original music, the reality and pain associated with alcohol abuse, substance abuse, and depression, and of course, the love story of Jack (Bradley Cooper) and Ally (Lady Gaga). Ally gets unconventionally courted by Jack as she and a friend are flown on a private jet to attend one of Jack’s concerts. That night following the concert, Jack slips into unconsciousness in a hotel room due to the excessive amount of substances used before, during, and after the show. He wakes in the middle of the night and begins to wake Ally; as this scene plays out, two single notes with no other accompaniment are played in the background as the rest of the world appears it has slipped away. A-A-B-B and then repeats again, A-A-B-B. So simple, and with so little fanfare that I did not pay much attention to this motif the first time I saw the film.

Two-Note Motif (this is a raw recording taken from a piano app – not nearly as beautiful without the sustain pedal!)

But this time it struck me as alluring, and somewhat familiar. I couldn’t put my finger on why. I continued to notice the motif throughout the movie this time, all during significant moments in the story; it was again played when Jack proposed to Ally in the home of their friend in Memphis. And once again, the entire scene melted away as Jack and Ally shared the intimate moment of a marriage proposal with the simple melodic accompaniment joining them in the background.

There are three more times that this motif is played in the film. The first of these three times is when Jack plays the love song he wrote for Ally after he gets home from his long-term inpatient rehabilitation stay. This two-note motif gets embedded into the beginning of the song that he is introducing to her, which we later find to be the foundation and groundwork of the song, “I’ll Never Love Again.”

The fourth time this motif is played, it is by Ally as she is slumped over the piano in the home that she and Jack shared. She begins playing this motif, but this time with a minor key accompaniment. This is the morning after Jack completed suicide; the minor undertones giving us a tiny glimpse into the enormity of the utter despair and pain she must be feeling.

The last time the motif is played is during the last song of the film, when Ally takes the stage at a memorial service for Jack, and performs the song that they shared together, “I’ll Never Love Again.” Besides hearing the sobbing in the theater, you can hear the A-A-B-B  A-A-B-B in the melody of the beginning of the song, and the motif continues to be woven throughout.

I left the theater after the second time viewing the film and realized that the beauty in this two-note motif could be, and probably is, very easily missed by audiences, especially during the first (and possibly only?) viewing. After all, this motif is not at all conspicuous or ornate. It probably sounds silly – there is an entire album of incredibly rich, textured music that has been the byproduct of this film (or may the film was the byproduct of the music?), and here I am focusing in on two notes – but they haunted me throughout the film and continued to even after leaving the theater.

The more I thought about these two notes, the more the motif took shape and began to apply meaning to itself right in front of me. Jack was a tortured soul; one who was complicated, with an injured past, who hurt deeply but loved on an even deeper level. Everything about him was a far cry from simple. But his love for Ally was the one facet of his life that he was able to make sense of. Yes, he hurt her – and badly, at times – but it was very apparent that, from the moment he saw her for who she truly was, his love for her was pure, and some may argue that this love was the one part of his life that remained un-tortured.

This two-note motif was Jack’s love song for Ally, told exclusively through Jack’s eyes — until the end, when this motif blossoms into Ally’s love song for Jack. It starts simple; no accompaniment and no lyrics, but was present during the most significant times of their relationship. And when Jack was gone and Ally didn’t have words, she sat at the piano and played her sadness, grief, and deep love that she felt for Jack through this motif with rich emotion and gravity. And then at the end of the film when Ally takes the stage – oh how the tears are streaming now – she echoes the love that Jack showed to her, that he curated for her by writing this song, and she performs the song in its’ entirety. This is Ally’s brave and heartfelt attempt to do their love story some semblance of justice while her heart is shattered in a million pieces on the floor.

In the aftermath of Jack’s death, his brother, Bobby, reminds Ally of Jack’s theory on music… “Jack talked about how music is essentially 12 notes between any octave. Twelve notes, and the octave repeats. It’s the same story, told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer the world is how they see those 12 notes. He loved how you see them.”

Everyone has a story; and this musician believes that if you have a story, you have a song.
How would yours sound?
Who would be your co-writer?
What might you be able to say through 12 notes that you couldn’t say with words?

Where words fail, music speaks.” – Hans Christian Andersen

 

 

2018-11-02T13:56:49+00:00November 2nd, 2018|Bereavement, Blog, Grief & Loss, Mental Health|

Expecting the Unexpected

I am a planner. I like to have a plan for most things that I do, and even when I don’t have a plan, I like to at least plan for the fact that there will be no plan. I think it mostly comes from a desire to know what I should be expecting. A desire to be prepared, mentally, emotionally, etc.

In other words, me and Surprise don’t quite Harmonize.

But the world of Music Therapy is full of surprises – some big, some small – and that’s something that I’m growing to at least appreciate, if not yet fully embrace (I’m working on it!)
Rather than a predictable and repetitive melody, this job feels more like free jazz sometimes. That is to say: it can feel a little all over the place! Just when you think you know what chord must be coming next, you’ve shifted into a new key. Right as you get a feel for the beat, the drummer drops his sticks and starts playing trombone instead. During a session with a client in a common area, a well-intentioned passerby visiting the facility hands you a grapefruit with a wink and a, “What you’re doing is so nice, keep it up!” (True story.)
You never quite know what your week might entail!

There are certainly constants that remain true in every session, every interaction, every song and every intervention. And, as mentioned in a previous post, structure and repetition are valuable tools in Music Therapy (See: Déjà Vu! Repetition in Music Therapy) But I’ve started to notice that one of those constants is fluctuation. One of the things we as therapists can Expect – with some degree of certainty – is the Unexpected.

We can expect songs and interventions to take a turn and become something entirely different.
We can expect clients to enjoy instruments and songs we never thought they’d like.
We can expect to forget instruments and materials and need to improvise – and we can expect those moments to perhaps be even more engaging and beneficial for our clients than whatever we had initially planned! (Who knew?)
We can expect cancellations, rescheduling, relocating, and visitors.
We can expect to be offered a grapefruit in the middle of a session.
(Okay, maybe that one’s a stretch.)

A lot of these surprises are good things! When we can embrace the Unexpected, “roll with the punches,” and learn to improvise (musically or otherwise) to suit the situation, our clients often benefit. And so do we.

But other surprises can be more challenging.
Other surprises can be harder to respond to.
Because no matter how much you think you’ve prepared, no matter how long it might have even been Expected, no matter the fact that you know full well what Hospice care means…

The death of a client can still knock you off your feet.

Which, I think, in its own way, is a good thing. Therapeutic relationships are meaningful for the therapist as well as for the client, and grief is a natural, human response to loss. So the fact that it can be hard to “roll” with this particular “punch” is no surprise. In fact, it’s evidence of empathy, confirmation of care, the mark of a meaningful relationship. But it is still hard.

If we can Expect the Unexpected, isn’t the opposite also true?
Something Expected can still catch us off guard.
So what do we do when an Expected outcome arrives Unexpectedly?
How do we make sense of the surprising event when it suddenly comes?
I certainly don’t have answers, but I know that it’s okay to feel shocked.
To feel uncertain.
To not be prepared.
To not have a plan.

Rather than trying to file those things away with a logical (but maybe somewhat robotic), “It was Expected, and I had prepared,” we can try to appreciate the (natural, human) feeling of surprise, even if not quite embracing it yet. And maybe that can better equip us to support those who are feeling significantly more shocked and uncertain than we in the wake of this “Expected” event.
Because remembering that even the Expected can still be entirely Unexpected might just help us to Harmonize with the Surprised.

– Written by Kevin Middlebrooks, LPMT, MT-BC

Walk to Remember: Life After Perinatal Loss

This Sunday, in recognition of October as National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, Northside Hospital hosted their annual Atlanta Walk to Remember. Our team had the privilege of attending this event alongside a number of parents, families, friends, and other healthcare professionals, all there to remember the precious and much-too-short lives of the babies they have lost. Suffice to say, we were honored to be entrusted with providing the musical backdrop for such an important day! Kevin Middlebrooks played piano while families arrived, found their seats before the presentation, and enjoyed refreshing popsicles in the warm autumn afternoon. Meanwhile, Bianca Ford, Maria Nichta, and Camila Casaw led the younger guests through a menagerie of fun and unusual sounds at the “Instrument Petting Zoo.” Later during the presentation, our whole crew came together – led by Maria and Bianca – to sing a few songs in honor of life after loss.

The theme of this year’s Walk was “Tribe”, and the beautiful example of the elephant was given: Elephants are among the most intelligent creatures on earth. That statement does not only refer to their ability to think practically, but also to their emotional intelligence. When a mother elephant loses her baby, she will lay by its side and grieve while the rest of the herd gathers around her, laying their trunks gently on her back for support until she is ready to move. This kind of empathy embodies the spirit of Northside’s “Tribe” in the face of the silent grief that is Perinatal Loss. As Music Therapists, we have a unique and powerful medium with which we can come beside our clients, their families, and one another in the midst of pain. When words fail, we have a tool to help us demonstrate empathy for our own “Tribe” until they are ready to move, ready to speak, or ready to sing again.

There is no time-table for grief. Eventually, our hope is that we can gather together and sing, like we did on Sunday: I think I can make it now, the pain is gone. All of the bad feelings have disappeared. Here is the rainbow I’ve been praying for. It’s gonna be a bright, bright, sun-shiny day. But until then, may we lie still with our Tribe in their pain – until they are ready to move.

{If you would like to learn more about the Northside Hospital H.E.A.R.T.strings Perinatal Bereavement and Palliative Care Department, please visit their website.}

Written by Kevin Middlebrooks, LPMT, MT-BC

 

 

 

 

 

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