Spoiler alert: This story reveals spoilers for the film “A Star Is Born.”
The latest movie version of “A Star Is Born” opens with country-rock star Jackson Maine playing to a sold-out crowd. The music blasts from speakers on the stage, the fans scream, and the arena is filled with an almost deafening level of sound. Many of us concert-goers have experienced the temporary hearing loss that comes with this level of sound exposure.
When the concert ends, a drunken Jackson, played by Bradley Cooper, walks off stage. However, what may not be apparent to those unfamiliar with the affliction is that he is suffering from something much more than a brief loss of hearing. As he slips into his waiting limo, a high-pitched ringing noise is heard in the background. This ringing in the ears is a sound that Jackson hears constantly in his head. This is the sound of tinnitus.
A Common Problem
According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, an estimated 25 million Americans have some form of tinnitus. While many people consider tinnitus to be a minor distraction, there are millions of people with severe cases of tinnitus that impact their daily lives.
Tinnitus symptoms, which include loud roaring, buzzing, whistling, or ringing in the ears are sometimes accompanied by sensitivity to noise. This can make it difficult for people with tinnitus to communicate or socialize with others. Well-intentioned friends, family, and co-workers may struggle to understand what the person is going through. They may also feel frustrated and confused when a person with tinnitus seems withdrawn.
A New Take on the Storyline
Like its predecessors, this latest version of “A Star Is Born” is a love story featuring a male protagonist who faces down his demons by dulling the despair with alcohol. Unlike previous tellings of this story, Cooper has added a secondary cause of Jackson’s frustration and self-destruction – hearing loss and tinnitus.
Over the course of the film, Jackson’s tinnitus is revealed more directly through conversations with his audiologist and his manager/half-brother Bobby (Sam Elliott). Pay attention and you will catch other clues to his hearing issues. Jackson leans into conversations so that he can hear the speakers and frequently asks, “What?”
At one point, Jackson’s doctor tells him that he has a high-frequency hearing loss and that he needs to start wearing in-ear monitors on stage. These monitors are custom-molded earplugs that block sound while simultaneously allowing musicians to hear the on-stage instruments and vocal performances. The alternative is to listen to the music and vocals mixed into monitors at the front of the stage, which are played loudly.
As it turns out, Jackson has been living with tinnitus for most of his life. He began experiencing ringing in his ears when he was young. His symptoms intensified as he aged due to prolonged exposure to loud music in his career as a musician.
Despite warnings, Jackson refuses the protective devices when Bobby hands them to him at soundcheck. Instead, he insists that the monitors be turned up louder, which just perpetuates the ongoing cycle of his hearing loss. (By the way, that audiologist that tries to get Jackson to take better care of his hearing is Cooper’s own ear doctor, William Slattery, III, MD).
Hearing loss was a part of the film’s new storyline from the start. And, Cooper relied on Slattery to make sure that Jackson’s tinnitus was appropriately represented. When the time came for casting the doctor’s role, Cooper offered it to Slattery. So I’m putting this out there: If any of my patients are working on Hollywood blockbusters, I’m available!
Shining a Light on an Important Issue
Incorporating a health issue that impacts millions of people in real life brings relevance to Cooper’s character. You don’t have to be a rock star to experience tinnitus or noise-induced hearing loss. Those most at risk include people in jobs where the sound level can be dangerous. Careers in construction, manufacturing, farming, public safety, lawn care, and the military pose a serious risk to hearing health. Even hairdressers, dentists, and nursery school teachers are at risk for job-induced tinnitus or hearing loss.
The constant buzzing, humming, static noise, or ringing in the ears of tinnitus is not only annoying, it can also seriously affect a person’s mental health. We see this in the film as Jackson’s hearing deteriorates and he becomes more anxious and depressed. He begins to drink heavily and to abuse the prescription medicine he received for his hearing disorder. Alcohol is known to increase the symptoms of tinnitus. According to the American Tinnitus Association, “An estimated 48-78% of people with severe tinnitus also have depression, anxiety, or other behavioral disorders.”
Ringing in the Ears Is a Warning Sign
Tinnitus is often the first sign of hearing loss, so if you experience tinnitus symptoms, it’s important to get your hearing checked. Simply quieting the noise through the use of medications will not address the root cause of the issue. Many people do not realize that they have hearing loss, especially during its early stages. If you are experiencing tinnitus, it is a clear indication that you need to consult an audiologist and get your hearing checked.
No scientifically validated tinnitus cure exists. There are, however, treatment options that can make living with tinnitus less burdensome. As an audiologist, I work to educate and empower my patients to better manage their hearing-related conditions. Tinnitus can have a dramatic impact on your work, social, and personal life. My goal is to address your underlying issues, provide you with relief from your symptoms, and improve your quality of life.