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The problem with A Star Is Born

Watch as Adam Lawler dives into the deep end of the soundtrack to the all-dominating film, finding it’s not as far from the shallow as it thinks it is.

It’s been over a month since A Star Is Born was released and it still looms large. A commercial and critical triumph with a number one song on Billboard, a star-making performance from Lady Gaga, and a revelatory directorial debut and metamorphosis from Bradley Cooper, has ensured that the film will linger in the collective mind far beyond the inevitable victory lap it will run at awards season. The film is a gorgeous, sweeping yet intimate love story told with close attention to every beat and every micro-expression of two people just falling head over heels.

The soundtrack is killer, too, with some of Gaga’s best work on display and Cooper proving his commitment to character. “Black Eyes” is somehow thrilling in a dad rock way and “Maybe It’s Time” is a lovely ditty which acts as a handy summation of the film’s themes, while “Always Remember Us This Way” and “Is That Alright?” are laser-focused Gaga ballads. “Hair Body Face” is pop Gaga at her zestiest and most on-trend and “Shallow” is its own thing at this point, taking over the world with its enthralling simplicity and memes of Gaga’s full-throated howl.

A film musical this big and so obviously gunning for cultural dominance and longevity shouldn’t have so many filler songs, though. The good songs are brilliant, but the rest are purely functional; they don’t soar, they work. Every musical has a less-than-amazing song or two, but there are so many padding out this already bloated soundtrack that it dilutes the hit rate. “Digging My Grave” and “Alibi” are staid country rockers while “Music to My Eyes” and “I Don’t Know What Love Is” are, while good vehicles to show off Gaga’s undeniable star quality, much like something Gaga would record with Tony Bennett for the sequel to Cheek to Cheek. There’s nothing wrong with them per se, but why are they here? What do they prove about Jackson and Ally’s artistic partnership except their canny ability to write spot-on imitations of other artists and eras? 

“A film musical this big and so obviously gunning for cultural dominance and longevity shouldn’t have so many filler songs”

One of the most confounding things about this film and soundtrack is the weirdly backwards view of pop music. Songs like “Heal Me”, “Why Do You Do That?” and “Hair Body Face” are so obviously meant to skewer the shallowness of chart-oriented pop music, with lyrics like “why do you look so good in those jeans? / Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” are paired with the sonic palette of tropical house. These pop songs are similar to Gaga’s 2017 single “The Cure”, probably because it was written around the same time except it was obviously viewed by Gaga as more artistically viable than the songs she obviously meant as parodies. The joke is very much on her, though; at the time, “The Cure” was lamented as being a pedestrian, trend-chasing entry in Gaga’s oeuvre, coming across as a desperate course-correct after 2016’s Joanne, itself a desperate course-correct.

Maybe if Gaga had saved “The Cure” for A Star Is Born it could have given Ally’s pop career a sense of development, or at least another dimension. As soon as Ally signs on to a label to be a pop star with a sleazy cipher of a manager, her character development when it comes to her career effectively ends. Until then she is in turns nervous, self-assured, jaded and hopeful, and it’s enthralling to watch this nuanced take on a woman who had given up on her ambitions only to be offered a revitalising chance at real success, insecurities still very much in tow on her way up. After this, the beats are excruciatingly easy to follow; pop star compromises artistic integrity to make something shallow and commercial, pop star sees nothing wrong with this and revels in her success, something happens to make pop star realise the error of her ways and rediscover her true self. So far so Hollywood. 

“Men dictate Ally’s decisions, her success, her identity”

There’s something awfully misogynistic about storylines like this, in that it’s Jackson who made Ally famous, Rez who made her a successful pop star, and Jackson who indirectly makes her “authentic” again. Ally seems like a complex, independent character (who probably had everyone rooting for her as soon as she screamed “fucking men!”), until a bird’s-eye view of the plot reveals that men dictate her decisions, her success, her identity. It would’ve been nice to see Ally grow as an artist towards the end of the film, seize more control of her career to make better pop music on her own terms, especially seeing as this is the exact trajectory Gaga’s own career has followed. These archaic conceits seem to stem from the film’s truly outdated notions of authenticity; does authenticity really equate to simply-rendered emotions in overblown ballads? Using instruments over electronics? Writing rock or country songs and indulging in by-the-numbers genre pastiche? Having brown hair?

This is exemplified by the closing song of the soundtrack and film, “I’ll Never Love Again”. It’s been widely documented that Gaga is a huge Whitney fan, and this song is so obviously her attempt at a Bodyguard soundtrack moment; it’s cookie-cutter, the lyrics platitudinous enough to completely strip the very real trauma and grief from the sentiment. The most moving moment of the whole sordid production is when it suddenly switches to a lo-fi recording of Jackson singing the song on piano in a flashback.

If “I’ll Never Love Again” is Gaga’s “I Will Always Love You” (an obvious touchstone), you’re left wishing that it was more like Dolly Parton’s original version. Plaintive but just as powerful, a more stripped back country spin on the track would have elevated it and, more importantly, made sense in the context of the film. If they wanted to illustrate Ally’s return to “authenticity”, inspired by her husband, why not at least write it to embody the same genre in order to symbolise this? It’s still a career-high vocal performance vocal from Gaga and the emotional crux of the film; it just doesn’t really make sense when you think about it too much. 

A Star Is Born is, like most big Hollywood films about “The Industry”, nostalgic for something that doesn’t really resonate in this era and cultural moment”

A Star Is Born is, like most big Hollywood films about “The Industry”, nostalgic for something that doesn’t really resonate in this era and cultural moment. The film doesn’t interrogate why Jackson Maine, an ageing white male rock musician, could be losing his popularity, and it doesn’t wonder why the pop music it is so unsubtly branding as shallow and inauthentic could possibly be resonating with the youth. Themes of love and addiction aside, at its core it’s a sad film about how sad it is that an old rockstar isn’t successful anymore. It’s the same problem present in La La Land; it exists in 2018 as a film that perpetuates the notion that every wannabe can be and deserves to be a star, no matter if what they’re doing isn’t that original or if it cribs from other cultures. It wants to be timeless and rose-tinted, and the sharp performances and affecting love story contribute to making this a reality. Its essence, however, is as old-fashioned and symbolic of narrow-mindedness as Jackson Maine’s cowboy hat.