Bangers and a mishmash: The ‘A Star is Born’ soundtrack
Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper mix slick RnB with everything from grunge to country and western
On its own terms, A Star Is Born makes for a very peculiar album, mixing grunge, Americana, country, soft-rock 1970s power ballads and slick modern digital RnB performed by a 21st-century pop powerhouse and a middle-aged actor singing in public for the first time. If it was a Spotify playlist, you might suspect algorithms had gone awry. What demographic links the gritty blues rock instrumental Out of Time, showcasing Bradley Cooper’s piercing lead-guitar playing, and the slinky urban dance groove Hair Body Face featuring Lady Gaga oozing breathy sex appeal?
Well, the answer to that is plain. As a souvenir of a powerful, funny, romantic and tragic movie melodrama, there is every chance that A Star Is Born will dominate charts around the world. Musical soundtracks can be very big business indeed. The Greatest Showman, featuring singing movie star Hugh Jackman, is the bestselling album in the world this year so far. It spent 11 weeks at number one in the UK. And when another female pop diva, Whitney Houston, made her movie debut in The Bodyguard in 1992, it resulted in one of the biggest albums of all time.
There are 20 songs on the 74-minute album (with 14 linking snatches of dialogue). Snippets and occasionally whole performances of these songs appear in the film, driving the narrative and lending the music an emotional force that it does not necessarily earn in its own right. Lady Gaga’s Is That Alright? may be a predictably constructed soapy piano ballad but in the plotline’s context of a lovelorn woman grasping for joy in a doomed romance, it won’t leave a dry eye in the house. Yet Gaga is a fantastic singer, and even at her most throwaway, her performance is always a joy. She camps up a glorious cabaret take on La Vie En Rose and delivers the breezy Carole King-style piano basher Look What I Found with real swagger.
This is an album of two halves, as the emphasis shifts from Cooper’s fading rocker to Gaga’s blooming pop star. It turns out that Cooper is a fine musician, with a robust, raw vocal style and deft, sensitive touch on the guitar. For his musical debut, he has been particularly astute in his choice of collaborators. His songs were mainly co-written with Lukas Nelson, son of Willie Nelson, and performed with Nelson’s outstanding band. (If you like Cooper’s brand of sensitive, soulful, bruised and grungy country rock, then you should check out Nelson’s underrated 2017 album Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real.) Duets with Gaga are all beautifully executed, with a potent tension between Cooper’s gritty directness and Gaga’s rich and fluid melodiousness.
Nelson co-writes many of Gaga’s songs too, which essay a slightly awkward journey from rock balladry to slickly superficial pop. In one sense, there is a tangible jump in standards as Gaga comes to the fore on the second half of the album – she is a major musical talent. But there is also a weird disconnect as the soundtrack shifts gear to anodyne modern pop.
While it is easy to pastiche authentic Americana styles in ways that invest the narrative with emotion, concocting a fresh pop blockbuster is a far more quixotic art. There is nothing here as earwormy as Gaga’s breakout hits Just Dance and Poker Face. Cooper’s character mocks the banality of lyrics like “Why d’you come around with an ass like that” and frankly he’s got a point. It throws up rather disturbing images of Gaga disappearing into a giant pair of buttocks (which, let’s be fair, is exactly the kind of thing she might have put in one of her early videos). The suspicion lingers that if she had come up with anything as banal as Heal Me, Why Did You Do That? and Hair Body Face when her own star was being born back in 2008, her nascent career may well have been sucked down a black hole.
The best of Cooper’s tracks is a solo acoustic rendition of Maybe It’s Time, a beautiful song written by Jason Isbell. Again, if you don’t know Isbell’s work, there’s plenty more of this high-quality Americana on his many fine solo albums. (Maybe start with 2015’s Something More Than Free.) The best of Gaga’s tracks are the 1970s-style power ballads Always Remember Us This Way and I’ll Never Love Again. They may be clichéd, sentimental and old-fashioned, but they are powered by enough conviction and vocal drama to suggest that Lady Gaga has the star power to go supernova in any musical era.
- © The Daily Telegraph