STAR IS BORN: Foreheads Featured

Even with anticipation as high as it was, A STAR IS BORN has still outdone expectations. First, it proved that Lady Gaga could act and Bradley Cooper could sing and direct. Then it outdid box office predictions in its first week to cruise to a nearly $43 million opening. A week later, A STAR IS BORN added another $28 million over the weekend, a drop off of only 35%, and held onto the #2 spot in the nation. Despite all these things, however, for me it remains all about the music.

I don’t mean to sound like Jackson Maine about it or anything, but the film lives and dies on how well the songs can grab you and not let go. Even as the movie dragged a bit during its second act and missed some of the melodramatic beats, the music always pulled me back in.

So I’m giving the tunes their due by reviewing every song on the soundtrack chronologically and then ranking them against one another. Please come along with me for the journey and don’t hesitate to let me know afterward what I got wrong and right.

STAR IS BORN: Cooper on Piano
Bradley Cooper tickles the ivories while Lady Gaga takes it all in in a scene from A STAR IS BORN. (Courtesy of Warner Bros)

“Black Eyes” by Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper)

As an opener to a concert/a film about music, this is a great choice. The way the guitar rips across the soundscape just demands attention. The way Maine attacks that first verse demands your attention. It is a perfect choice.

However, after you get past that first verse, the song has nothing left to it. Lyrically and musically repetitive, it becomes oddly flat about a third of the way through. A reprisal of the opening verse helps a bit, but the damage is already done by that point.

Also, is it just me or does Maine sound increasingly like Jim Morrison as the song goes on?

“La Vie En Rose” by Ally (Lady Gaga)

You know the song. You know Ally has a heck of a voice. So you, more or less, know what to expect.

The song does lose something in audio-only form, for me at least, as Ally’s charisma makes it clear she is more than just a talented singer. That she, as Maine says, may have something more to say with her voice.

“Maybe It’s Time” by Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper)

A strong bit of Americana music, for sure. The stripped-down acoustic guitar, the plaintive pain of Maine’s vocals… it is like weaponized nostalgia. That tone only adds to the ironic nature of the song.

For one, A STAR IS BORN is rife with examples of people being unable to escape their old ways. We have Maine and his addiction, Maine and his suicidal thoughts, Ally achieving the fame her father always wanted for himself, and Ally becoming part of the pop music machine like so many before her.

Additionally, there is A STAR IS BORN’s own backwards directed gaze. Unlike the real current world of music that has largely abandoned concerns of selling out or the belief that pop music is inherently empty, A STAR IS BORN is very preoccupied with such things. The old ways of music “having” to be a certain way to be good or quality very much remain the lens this movie judges music through. Meanwhile, here on Earth, pop music stars are considered both some of the most popular and most important musicians. The old ways perished from our world a long time ago.

That irony does not make the song worse, though. If anything, it works even better, revealing the film’s worldview and foreshadowing the ruin of Maine.

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper share a mic in A STAR IS BORN. (Courtesy of Warner Bros)

“Out of Time” by Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper)

I am a big fan of songs that slowly bring in each musical element of the tune as it progresses, so “Out of Time” had me onboard before Maine sang a word. The percussive element that sounds a bit like drumsticks striking one another and calls to mind boots on a dance floor. Then the light but constant bass line. Then a quick guitar lick, increasing in frequency and presence, and so on. I love when an artist literally builds the song right “in front” of your ears.

Then it turns out there really are no words. In the context of A STAR IS BORN, that’s fine. As a track on an album, it is a bit of a disappointment.

“Alibi” by Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper)

I really enjoy the way Maine uses his voice here, especially the sort of mumble-slur he puts on the word “alibi” as the music drops off.

I was prepared to give this a less positive review and, in fact, had written it all out. But then I happened to hear the song again while working on a different piece and I’ve changed my mind. It still is not my favorite song by a good stretch but I like and appreciate it more now after a couple of visits.

There is a lot happening musically here but it all fits together in a way that makes you think it is actually a simple composition. That’s interesting.

The lyrics are not much, although they reveal Maine’s ongoing struggles with the legacy of his father. That said, the vocals are quite nice, as alluded to above. So it turns out I like this one a bit.

The audience is loving this Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper duet in a scene from A STAR IS BORN. (Courtesy of Warner Bros)

“Shallow” by Ally and Jackson Maine (Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper)

There is a reason that this song has been featured so prominently in nearly every bit of promotion for A STAR IS A BORN. Because it is great. Heck, if I could get away with it, I might refer to it as being “everything.” Alas, I cannot get away with that kind of thing.

This is another song that works well both in context and separate from the film. Watching the movie, you can see and feel Ally’s increasing confidence signing in front of the crowd. The song divorced from that context still features her growing increasingly big and strong in her voice but it plays more as commitment. In other words, as the song builds, the farther from the shallow she truly is getting.

In that way, it turns right back around to mirroring A STAR IS BORN. Maine’s “commitment” to the song remains steady as hers grows, charting how her commitment to them grows in the movie as well, starting from wary and hesitant until she is so all-in she is derailing her career to make sure he is looked after.

But divorced from all that subtext and interpretations? At one point, Ally lets loose this, “Ahhhhooooooaaaaaaah!” and it just crushes.

“Music to My Eyes” by Ally and Jackson Maine (Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper)

Ugh. I hate it. Thank goodness this doesn’t show up on-screen in A STAR IS BORN. Who told Maine that what he needed was to try to be Neil Diamond for just one song?

It does not help that the lyrics are almost entirely clichés strung together in a way that mimics a complete thought but almost certainly is not.

“Diggin’ My Grave” by Ally and Jackson Maine (Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper)

I wish they paired these lyrics with a nastier piece of music. I can imagine myself really liking it if the music was something more like “Black Eyes” or “Out of Time.” Unfortunately, with this bouncier backing track, it feels a bit, well, shallow and almost dance-y? But dance-y in sort of ‘90s country kind of way if that makes sense? I can see some people really liking this one, but it just fell poorly on my ears.

STAR IS BORN: She is becoming
Lady Gaga really belts it as Bradley Cooper looks on in the background. (Courtesy of Warner Bros)

“Always Remember Us This Way” by Ally (Lady Gaga)

A showcase for Ally’s voice and piano skills. She, sadly, does not cut loose as much as say on “Shallow,” but even that voice at 75% of letting it fly is damn impressive. Good mid-tempo ballad that is deployed well in A STAR IS BORN to show she is growing in terms of vocal confidence and songwriting.

“Look What I Found” by Ally (Lady Gaga)

In “Diggin’ My Grave” Maine is singing somewhat from Ally’s point of view. Here it is a bit more like Ally is singing as though she is him, lacing her lyrics with alcohol and binge drinking metaphors.

She does not simply leave them to stand on their own, however. Despite the references to alcoholism, she puts it directly up against the discovery of a new love. It creates a tension between the destructive addictions of Maine’s past and present and the promise of love represented by Ally herself. Either accidentally or because she has incredible insight she does accurately reveal Maine’s life. The juxtaposition between the parties and the empty home life, the drive to work that is no longer fulfilling, and the “voices” that are forever telling him he still isn’t good enough all “star” in her lyrics.

Ally also gets to show off more vocal fireworks here and you know I love that. Additionally, she hits a heretofore unused falsetto that sounds almost Prince-like in the moment.

All together, just a great song.

“Heal Me” by Ally (Lady Gaga)

Ally does Taylor Swift, circa 1989 album, kind of? It is light and frothy, dancing over the top of some pretty obvious pain. We will get more into A STAR IS BORN’s weird inconsistent attitude towards pop lower down, especially with “Why Did You Do That?” but this is definitely a song that they could have used during the SNL scene that would have a.) been better and b.) made more sense coming out of Ally’s mouth, even as an example of the demonic pop music.

“I Don’t Know What Love Is” by Ally and Jackson Maine (Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper)

This is… fine? I like that there is a bit of text painting where the music switches to match the styles being namechecked, but otherwise I’m kind of indifferent to the whole enterprise.

STAR IS BORN: Gaga steps up for first time
Lady Gaga seizes the moment and the mic as Bradley Cooper provides guitar support in a scene from A STAR IS BORN. (Courtesy of Warner Bros)

“Is That Alright?” by Ally (Lady Gaga)

If it is not clear yet, I am a sucker for piano ballads sung by women with strong voices. So this? This is very much my jam.

Lyrically, I like it. It is vulnerable and strong at once. She alternates between pulling along the lover she is addressing and asking for (presumably) his help and support. The way she unspools their life and what she chooses to linger on or speed past is interesting. I especially like the bit where she reduces parenthood to just teaching the children to say please and thank you. There’s something very honest about that. Obviously, there’s a lot more to parenting than that and yet, if you had to reduce it to its most basic elements, “be kind to others” is pretty damn close to what it is all about.

My only criticism is that the song builds but never bursts. I appreciate the counterintuitive chorus as much as the next person, but I do wish she had really crashed it on one of the verses. But that’s a personal preference thing more than a true criticism of how the song is structured.

“Why Did You Do That?” by Ally (Lady Gaga)

Ah yes, the infamous SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE song. That height of A STAR IS BORN not “getting” the current state of music.

In the context of the movie and Ally’s story, this song makes zero sense. It is unlike anything she does before or after this moment. I know this is because it is supposed to read as the “sell your soul” moment, but instead, it plays as something more like an aberration. Who fell in love with Ally’s singing at a Jackson Maine show that would expect this or be excited by it being her first official single? “I sure do love her plaintive songs of love and pain. I can’t wait to hear her sing a song about sexting and tight jeans!”

This is less a criticism of the song and more of the film. I know what they are going for but it is so 0 to 60 — followed by nothing similar — that it does not build a case for her being eaten by the industry so much, as it seems her management has no idea what they are doing.

A STAR IS BORN seems to half get this as well since it kind of abandons the idea of her being consumed by fame to instead make it about Maine’s issue, a smarter idea.

Anyway, as a song, it is exactly what it is supposed to be, a sort of shallow bit of pop fluff. I have heard other people call it a bop but, for me, the beat is not compelling enough and Ally’s voice is drowned, not enhanced.

However, to be clear, the problem with the song is not that pop music is inherently bad or inauthentic. Just that this particular song is not all that fun.

“Hair Body Face” by Ally (Lady Gaga)

Now, this is more like it. First, it is just a better song than “Why Did You Do That?”. Second, it is easier to see how a producer could get from something like “Shallow” to this. It is undeniably pop — they pull in auto tune effects at times — but it is also centers her voice and lets her give the fans plenty of showcases for what brought them in in the first place.

If the movie was more honest about pop music, this would have been the song to use for sure. It is actually a bop, it is well constructed, and it is something I could see Maine thinking is empty frippery but, like a lot of current pop music, is actually pretty complex.

If they used “Hair Body Face,” all the elements could still have been there. Ally has become more artificial, both literally and, more importantly for the story, in Maine’s eyes. He drinks as a result. He insults her work, but the audience can see it is driven by jealousy although we still worry that, perhaps, she is being consumed by the machine. However, we can also see what he won’t, that she is integrating different things into her existing style and perspective. She is not becoming a pop robot, she is using pop to her own ends.

Alas, this one barely registers in A STAR IS BORN which is a shame. I actually like it quite a bit.

STAR IS BORN: On the big screen
You aren’t seeing double, Gaga is just that big a fame monster in A STAR IS BORN. (Courtesy of Warner Bros)

“Before I Cry” by Ally (Lady Gaga)

I love how basic the percussion is in this song. Two foot stumps and a clap. Paired with the sparse piano line, it makes the song feel sort of anachronistic without grounding it in any particular era. It fits with A STAR IS BORN as the movie seems to exist in an alternate timeline version of our reality.

The lyrics are nothing to write home about but they do the job. Sometimes, especially when it comes to love ballads, a lack of specificity is actually for the better. So many more people listening will relate to it if you code it in this kind of vague area of heartache then if, say, Ally specified that the reason for the distance is her increasing popularity and his substance abuse problems.

As a 37-year-old man, this is the kind of song I wouldn’t switch off the radio but also likely would not sing along to. However, if I put myself back in middle or high school, I am slow dancing to this song every dance and, I admit it, imagining myself in the relationship Ally is sketching. So, mission accomplished, I think.

“Too Far Gone” by Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper)

At under 90 seconds, this song is barely present before it is gone. It feels like the start of a song I might like but it never moves beyond its opening sentiment musically or vocally. I like its first thought, “I’m scared to lose you,” and the hint of a second, “But maybe you do need to let go of me,” but this is too incomplete to work for me.

“I’ll Never Love Again” by Ally and Jackson (Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper)

I cannot help but picture the Mariah Carey “Hero” video when I hear this song. Part of that is the movie’s fault. They both share the lone singer on a stage motif. However, part of it is the song. Even though this and “Hero” don’t really resemble each other, there is something in the sonic motifs that connect the two deep in my lizard brain.

This, unfortunately, happens with a lot of musicals that are about the creation of music. The whole endeavor is leading to this one “big” song either because of circumstance — as in this case — or because it is a plotline: think Roger in RENT. When the song arrives, though? There are many songs better than it that came first. So it is here. “Before I Cry” would have been a better ender than this and explores similar themes. Instead, A STAR IS BORN closes on this sort of bland, generic weeper ballad. Alas.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga celebrate a good set with a hug in A STAR IS BORN. (Courtesy of Warner Bros)

Final Rankings of A STAR IS BORN soundtrack

  1. “Shallow”
  2. “Maybe It’s Time”
  3. “Look What I Found”
  4. “Black Eyes”
  5. “Is That Alright?”
  6. “Hair Body Face”
  7. “Always Remember Us This Way”
  8. “Alibi”
  9. “Heal Me”
  10. “Before I Cry”
  11. “La Vie En Rose”
  12. “Out of Time”
  13. “I’ll Never Love Again”
  14. “Too Far Gone”
  15. “Why Did You Do That?”
  16. “Diggin’ My Grave”
  17. “Music to My Eyes”

And there you have it, the definitive A STAR IS BORN songs rankings. Truth be told, basically everything above “La Vie En Rose” is quite strong. Even “Rose” and below have their charms. It is not until “Diggin’ My Grace” that I guarantee I’d change the station if they came on the radio. Even then, though, I can honestly say I only hated “Music to My Eyes.” Everything above that had at least something I could point to as interesting or well done about them. And, thus, like I said, the music is far and away the strongest part of A STAR IS BORN.

One Comment

  1. Kenny Williams

    Kenny Williams

    October 17, 2018 at 1:47 am

    Sure, A Star is Born is great, but … how is this content relevant to your brand?


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