Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper Are a Musical Triumph on ‘A Star Is Born’ Soundtrack
“A Star Is Born,” which finds its latest iteration in the stagerringly star-powered collaboration of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, is a film with enduring enough value to span several generations. The original came in 1937, with Janet Gaynor. Then, there was the 1954 version with Judy Garland. In 1976, the celebrity factor was further magnified, with a rendition featuring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Now, Gaga and Cooper have taken on the classic in Cooper’s directorial debut. They’ve chosen to soundtrack the film to their own songs, infusing some fresh sonic spirit into the age-old story. They both co-wrote the songs themselves, with some aid from such illustrious contributors as Lukas Nelson (Son of Willie) and Diane Warren, who has penned hits from everyone from Roy Orbison to Britney Spears. As you would expect, it’s an astonishingly solid set of songs — poignant, versatile, and most of all, extremely effective in how well it balances the duties of conveying a storyline and offering bits of sound candy that would be delicious even if removed from the film context. Gaga puts on a performance as big and bold as one would expect, and will almost definitely leave you in awe. As for Cooper, who would have thought that the guy hunting quail in “Wedding Crashers” would end up here? Anyone who has seen “Silver Linings Playbook” probably detected that he had sparks of genius, and they show themselves spectacularly in this release. In interviews with both artists, Gaga has spoken about how spellbound she was upon hearing Cooper’s singing voice, and there’s a very palpable chemistry between the two that has made its way well into the music, making for a truly exceptional soundtrack. The songs are interspersed with bits of dialogue, letting you into the narrative, and giving all of the numbers contextual meaning, making the whole experience thoroughly engaging.
“Black Eyes” starts things off with some hard classic rock — guitar soloing, Jesus Christ pose, tough guy vocals, worn-in rock star voice, and a badass presence that gets a crowd crazy. The story to come involves a musician at his peak crossing paths with one struggling on her way to the top, and the dreams and drama that ensue. A turning point is Gaga’s performance of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose,” the moment in the film when Cooper’s character finds himself starstruck. From just the first line, it’s clear why Gaga was the best casting choice, as her singing is so powerful that it brings you into the mind of Cooper witnessing this for the first time, and elicits the same reaction he would experience in real time. This soundtrack is an immersive experience, bringing you head on into the storyline, and this song takes you into a dim-lit cabaret atmosphere, with Gaga belting it out over piano and some perfectly loose horns. She goes full operatic, and it’s impressive how convincing her French pronunciation is. One mark of a real artist is the ability to switch from one sound to a drastically different one, and still pull it off without seeming forced or phony, and Gaga surely stands up to this.
“Maybe It’s Time” finds Cooper in a reflective country cut. The attention to detail is what makes the song so resonant, and it bares testament to the often unappreciated suitability of musical excursions for people with an otherwise strictly acting resume. When you’re tapping into a certain style — a certain musical aesthetic that has developed its distinctive traits over the course of history — it takes an observant ear to fathom the entire essence. Moreover, the ability to shift gears smoothly and fall into character is integral to artistic expression. This song is a prime example, with Cooper sounding like the wide-eyed, but strung-out rocker in contemplative mode.
“Out Of Time” is a bluesy, rock guitar solo, in the vein of Jack White in huge stadium mode, and shows some serious, flashy licks. “Alibi” brings more of that, but in the mold of country-rock stomper. You can hear the crowd cheering, and it sounds like just the type of song fit for that environment. Suddenly, “Shallow” launches into entirely different territory, with Coop bellowing in long projections, reflective as in “Maybe It’s Time,” but this time in an entirely different way, as it’s romantic infatuation rather than jaded disillusionment that’s the inspiration. Then, Gaga comes in, prompting a massive cheer from the crowd. When she gets to the chorus, with its supersized, high-register vocals, it’s a chilling harbinger. The two join in lovely harmonies, and you should know by know that this is a climactic bit of the film. Then, Gaga finishes things off in the type of soaring, dramatic outpouring that makes heads spin, and glasses shatter.
After this pinnacle, the soundtrack naturally segues into love-drunk territory on “Music To My Eyes,” with lyrics like, “I wanna learn your every line,” and “I’d like to be the strings on your guitar.” This is the type of sappiness that often induces cringes to all but the most helplessly enamored souls, but it’s done so well that you needn’t worry — it’s all pretty perfect. This is mainly because Gaga and Cooper’s chemistry, which is so exemplary that a song like this comes across as a natural extension of a real feeling. The terrifyingly titled “Digging My Grave” is a gritty, down-home duet, with Gaga on howling duties over guitar with some real elemental swag. The line, “You’ll be up all night digging my grave” is the type of zinger that’s equal parts licentious, morbid, and — well, whatever you make of it.
“How Do You Hear It?” a bit of dialogue, shows Gaga telling Cooper of a tune she just came up with, and humming it. On comes “Look What I Found,” the realization of the idea, in full fruition, with Gaga beaming as always, making you wonder at the marvel of how the casually voiced, unassuming, little melody somehow was fleshed out into a work of such grandeur. Next up, “Heal Me” is a bit of an outlier, as the country-rock stylings that defined much of the album so far have been ditched for a generic, modern pop song. It’s a brief detour, as “I Don’t Know What Love Is” brings things neatly back to the overall theme. It’s another duet, echoing the spirit of Johnny and June Carter, but in high def audio.
“Is That Alright?” finds Gaga alternating between vulnerable, shy girl mode and earth-shattering diva fare. It’s a strikingly effective expression of the mixed bag of emotions that one plunges into in an all-consuming relationship. “Why Did You Do That?” shifts gears gracefully, with Gaga ostensibly stirred up, judging from the titular line. It delves into Beyonce-esque fare, in terms of the vocal stylings, and has some droning synth bass that grounds it in the present moment. At this stage, you have to appreciate this soundtrack for its sheer versatility. It’s standard protocol for a film to stick within narrow confines, in attempt to effectively capture the essence of a narrow setting. But then you have directors like Baz Luhrmann and Sofia Coppola who fit contemporary music to Victorian scenes, and make heads explode. This soundtrack isn’t quite like that, as the narrative is set in the present, so anything goes. Still, it would be unexpected for an artist to shuttle between disparate styles so randomly, and it seems to be done so as to provoke the same slightly disorienting, but exhilarating reaction, and also to simply offer a broader musical pallette to enjoy.
“Scene 98,” another short dialogue bit, gives a glimpse of the couple when things are sour, and nails the typical guy-girl pushed-to-our-limits dynamic with such precision that it’s rather hilarious. Expectedly, “Before I Cry” follows suit, with Gaga audibly strained, bellowing, “Hurry up, hurry up / Before I lose you.” The chorus is huge, showing Gaga basking in all the glory that we’ve duly come to expect from her. “Too Far Gone” is a chilling pronouncement of someone who senses an imminent collapse, with Cooper singing, “Please don’t tell me I’m too far gone.” The following dialogue, “Twelve Notes,” features a speaker describing how music consists of twelve notes that repeat themselves in cycles. It’s interesting how the AA programs coincidentally have twelve steps — not to jump on the wagon or anything, but considering the fate of Coop’s character, it is rather curious. After all these trials and tribulations, we reach the grand finale, “I’ll Never Love Again,” with Gaga again on chaunteneuse duties, letting out an effusive outpouring with lyrics that would seem saccharine if not warranted by such a compellingly demonstrated backstory. It makes an effective case for love being a one-shot thing, rather than a mentality to freely shift in and out of with various people. There’s an extended version of the song included too, for those who want to really milk the song for all its teary slush.
Overall, this is one hell of a soundtrack album. Normally, soundtrack records are a rather transparently pathetic marketing gesture — a collection of songs that appeared at some point in a film, usually placed with no real narrative arc, and often chosen with a preference for big names over actual contributive substance. Here, you have just two artists taking you through the journey of the movie, with dialogue soundbytes to draw you into the experience, so that they’re not merely isolated tracks, but rather pieces of a story. Moreover, it’s a very touching, relatable story, and there couldn’t possibly be two better artists to tell it in the form of song.
“A Star Is Born” soundtrack is available Oct. 5 on Apple Music.