For an urtext that connects the Hollywood musical and the Hollywood melodrama—those two quintessentially feminine genres of American film—the gender dynamic at the heart of A Star Is Born always has been oddly off-kilter, across eight decades and four iterations. Or maybe not so oddly, if you remember that this story about a woman’s triumph of self-expression still unfolds under male domination, both on screen and behind the scenes. Though the title tells us it’s a tale of a female talent’s rise, the real narrative engine is a man’s fall, via addiction and bullheadedness, which a woman must suffer through as the cost she pays for her self-realization.
Audiences accept and even embrace it because it feels archetypically true, a stand-in for all the things women give up as part of a lifelong negotiation with a man’s world. That she survives at all intact is the source of the overwhelming, ugly cry–producing relief of the final scene, as iconic in the 2018 version as ever. But until then, the man at the center of the tragedy gets the lion’s share of the best scenes and lines. What the woman gets, ever since Judy Garland’s quavering torch burned through the screen in 1954’s first musical version, is the music—music, in a sense, as a force beyond the reach of the unfairness of real-world power and pragmatism.
So there’s a poetic justice, listening to the soundtrack of the new A Star Is Born, directed by Bradley Cooper and starring himself and Lady Gaga, to the fact that everything impressive about Cooper’s on-screen performance fades to a wash here. Meanwhile, Gaga gets to revel in a few of the most stunning musical moments of her decadelong career.
But it also means the album is off-kilter in the opposite way. In the movie, it’s a disarming surprise how well the guy from the Hangover movies and Silver Linings Playbook acquits himself as a credible musician. That illusion doesn’t survive the translation to an audio-only experience. Aside from the solo acoustic “Maybe It’s Time,” supplied by the superb songwriter Jason Isbell in a style that channels the spirit of the late great Townes Van Zandt, the Cooper features on the soundtrack are mostly gray zones that one has to sit through, waiting for Gaga to come back.
In the film, it’s easy enough to overlook the fact that Cooper’s Jackson Maine character—more or less a repeat (or, as one critic friend put it, a “cover version”) of Kris Kristofferson’s country-rocker character from the 1976 A Star Is Born with Barbra Streisand—makes very little sense as a figure in the 2018 music world, even one with his best days a bit behind him. He would be a Nashville star, or more of a cult Americana artist, not the rock idol appearing at Coachella that he’s made out to be. So he’d be an unlikely contact point between the chart-pop world and Gaga’s gifted but previously luckless singer Ally. Instead of Kristofferson, it might have felt more contemporary if Cooper could have chosen, for instance, a fading indie-rock phenomenon to model himself on here, for instance Jack White. Imagine the effect on his persona of a big black coif and red-and-white vintage garb, a little more downtown in his frown.
Kristofferson, who was riding out his glory days as a country-rock “outlaw” crossover star in the mid-1970s, was also able to perform deliberately poorly, to indicate his character’s diminished state, and still give you the feeling that there was a greatness lying behind it. Cooper, striving just to seem believable, can’t afford to do the same. And while that doesn’t interfere with the drama, it does mean that when you listen to Cooper apart from the film, his performances are revealed to be passable amateur takes on ersatz versions of Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead, or Kristofferson himself. These tracks are mostly co-creations with Lukas Nelson, son of Willie and leader of the group Promise of the Real, better known as a backing band for Neil Young than in their own right. Nelson also had a hand in overseeing other music for the movie, but thankfully he brought in much more solid songwriters for the most pivotal numbers.
The best one can say for Cooper is that he does no harm as a duet partner for Gaga on their songs together, and that’s a huge relief, because one of the most satisfying elements of the new movie is that they come off very realistically as musical kindred souls, including as co-writers—it has some of the most convincing scenes of musical collaboration since 2007’s Music and Lyrics with (of all people) Drew Barrymore and Hugh Grant.
All these factors help balance out the conceptual flaw that several observers have noted in the movie, which is that it tends to subscribe to an outdated and always misbegotten idea of musical authenticity that treats songwriting as superior to performance, pleasure as less worthy than misery, and implicitly, femininity as more artificial than masculinity. On the soundtrack, most of Cooper’s meant-to-be-good country rock is actually duller and dumber than Gaga’s most exaggerated, meant-to-be-bad pop “sellout” tracks, like “Why Did You Do That?” and “Hair Body Face” (both credited partly to one of Gaga’s primary partners in her own poppiest phase, DJ White Shadow). This gives the lie to the endless bad dialogue in the movie where Cooper insists that writing her own songs, what Ally “has to say,” is the only value that counts. What’s more, Sam Elliott as Cooper’s older brother, in a later scene, counters with an idea about music and interpretation that feels deeper than any of that folderol. What emerges in the best musical moments of the movie and the soundtrack is actually a synthesis, where every part of the person, including pretenses and sincerity, stagecraft and self-revelation, is mobilized to unleash every possible register of emotion.
Of course, just asking Lady Gaga herself to play the Streisand part determines this, since her whole persona was built on blurring distinctions between the supposedly fake and real—drawing on Andy Warhol, David Bowie, Madonna, and many more to argue that one’s truest self can be found in being someone else. The fact that we first meet her in a drag bar, the only woman welcomed (even allowed) on the bill by the queens of the place, underlines that message immediately. The performance she gives there of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” is the film’s first musical highlight and one of the most memorable, standing exactly in the place of Judy Garland’s historic rendition of Ira Gershwin and Harold Arlen’s “The Man That Got Away” in the 1954 film, which takes place in an after-hours bar where her jazz band has gone to jam after their paying gig. This is where James Mason’s Norman Maine is first captivated by her voice, just as Cooper’s Jackson Maine is taken with Gaga at the drag bar—the crucial difference being that while Garland is in private and so letting her “true” self out, Jack is witnessing Ally almost playing herself as a drag queen, the layers of gender performance (and false eyebrows) testifying to a grander, less rigid idea of truth. But Gaga’s own recent career testifies to the fact that she’s been struggling with both sides of the equation, stepping back from her earlier Artpop concept to sing standards with Tony Bennett and sing autobiographical country rock on her most recent album Joanne that often, in retrospect, seems to presage the pop-ballad hybrid style she works to her best effect in some of A Star Is Born.
Unfortunately the version of “La Vie en Rose” we hear on the soundtrack isn’t as affecting as it is on screen, precisely because it’s the same one. It was a great decision for the movie to use live, on-set performances rather than studio takes of the songs, so that they feel grounded in the situation. But for home listening, this means the audio quality is uneven and a bit distant. But along with the lamer Cooper tracks and the included snippets of movie dialogue between songs (which actually work fine in their own right and aren’t nearly as much a drag on the momentum as you might guess from looking at the track list), it renders the soundtrack more of a souvenir of the movie than a work that stands alone. This technique has been used for many movie and stage musical soundtracks, but they’ve seldom been the albums with staying power. Streisand and Kristofferson didn’t do it for their A Star Is Born soundtrack, and given Gaga’s huge (if somewhat dimming) star wattage, it risks disappointing her fans looking for a definitive new album here. I’m very glad to have both the screen and studio versions (the last as kind of a bonus track) of the excellent climactic song, “I’ll Never Love Again,” but it makes me wish I also had cleaner, punchier recordings of the soundtrack’s very best material, “Shallow” and “Always Remember Us This Way.”
The former already excited the public as the key sonic moment of the movie’s trailer—the song that gives Ally her first world-beating thrill, having been dragged onstage by Jack. It’s a perfect combination of rootsiness and Gaga-ness, recalling her early sonic signature of stuttering, alliterative hooks (“Poker Face,” “Paparazzi”) via the doo-wop-nudging “Sha-shal-la-la-low” chorus. But its verses also blend sturdy 1970s songwriting with a more up-to-date vernacular, including my favorite line in any song here, directed from Ally to Jack: “Ain’t it hard keepin’ it so hardcore?”
But on “Always Remember Us This Way,” we get Gaga sounding entirely like herself but letting her voice soar to even greater heights, the way she does throughout A Star Is Born, thanks to a sprinkling of Hollywood fairy dust and a stage that lets her show off even more than usual—with which, like a fearless vocal assassin, she annihilates anyone who remembers only the meat dress and puts herself about as close to Streisand’s plane (though not Garland’s, sorry) as any current pop singer could. We also get a song created by a murderer’s row of Nashville talent, including songwriters Natalie Hemby (a Miranda Lambert henchwoman) and Lori McKenna (too many hits to name), as well as producer Dave Cobb (facilitator to Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and Isbell). Channeled through Gaga’s throat, it immediately feels indelible. This is the song she was searching for on Joanne, as well as the one that marks the pivot point in any Star Is Born: Our protagonists in synch, their ambitions aligned, their souls utterly enriched by their mating, but with some innate knowledge that it cannot last: “When the sun goes down/ And the band won’t play/ I’ll always remember us this way.”
It’s all downhill from there. But they could never have gotten so high, so extraordinary, so profoundly stupid other than together. It’s a myth, an elevation of ordinary disappointments into grandeur. And perhaps it’s a hurtful one. Yet in a song like this, we hear how deeply, how desperately we want and need it. We hear what keeps it evergreen. That said, Gaga’s arguably expressed it better at least once before. If A Star Is Born must ever be remade again, let’s grant it a more suitable title: A Bad Romance.