The Lowdown: As winter turns to spring, as the phoenix dies to be reborn, so does old intellectual property become new again. A Star Is Born was made in 1937 and remade as musicals in 1954 and 1976. Bradley Cooper steps into the leading man’s guitar strap, last worn by Kris Kristofferson, and the first few songs of the soundtrack belong to his surprisingly soulful voice. His country rock stylings are soon joined by Lady Gaga in a role previously played by Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland. Soon Lady Gaga takes over the album, and then the guitars give way to glittering synthesizers. There are songs of love and strife and loss. In the end, the instrumentation is stripped away until all that’s left is a piano, a voice, and a handful of heavy words. The soundtrack tells pretty much the whole movie — for better mostly, but sometimes for worse.
The Good: There are a handful of bands today that would happily swap their lead singer for Cooper. He has, perhaps, a below-average professional voice, but make no mistake: it’s a professional-quality voice. Cooper sings the hell out of “Black Eyes”, a song he co-wrote with Lukas Nelson, son of Willie. And the best track on the album might be a Cooper cut: “Maybe It’s Time”, a quiet look at a changing world, written by Jason Isbell.
But the real star was always going to be Lady Gaga, and the great fun of A Star Is Born is hearing her play in different musical sandboxes. Lady Gaga is a music nerd, with a nerd’s love of genres. She loves synth pop. She loves outlaw country. She loves disco, funk, and seventies rock, and she gets to have it all in A Star Is Born. She belts out “Is That Alright” like a big Broadway ballad — this is a musical, after all — and you can easily imagine her leaning over Evita’s balcony or “Defying Gravity” in green face paint. “Diggin’ My Grave” could have been a Reba McEntire duet, and Bradley Cooper could have been Billy Ray Cyrus. “Look What I Found” is funky piano pop. “Why Did You Do That” is horny and dressed for the clubs.
Still, the very best moments are when Cooper’s whiskey tones join Gaga’s blasting trumpet, like on “Diggin’ My Grave” or the wonderful, Oscar-baiting “Shallow”, which works because there’s real chemistry between the two leads, helped along by a mournful violin and enormous, crashing drums.
The Bad: Lots of bits of dialogue are scattered throughout the soundtrack to provide background for the tunes. Sometimes, these scenelets add emotional weight, transforming pop songs into Shakespearean monologues. Other times, it’s just two people talking. Frequently, these skits kill the emotional energy building between songs.
There are far too many empty tracks. “Out of Time” is just a fairly competent guitar solo, presented without context or justification. And while Lady Gaga’s “La Vie En Rose” may be important to the story of the movie, it’s hard to appreciate a cover of an oft-covered song when there’s so much stunning original work on the other side of the <skip> button.
The Verdict: Yes, the listening experience would have been improved with tighter editing, but there are a great many sins in the world, and a soundtrack being too-faithful to the movie is hardly the worst. There’s real joy in this music — real pleasure in the making of art. Bradley Cooper is a delightful surprise, and Lady Gaga adds to her legend. A Star Is Born is a story familiar to audiences and personal to the people making it. It’s all in the service of fiction, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real.
Essential Tracks: “Diggin’ My Grave”, “Shallow”, and “Maybe It’s Time”