If you haven’t heard, A Star Is Born is a smash hit. Bradley Cooper’s musical drama, which co-stars Lady Gaga and marks the fourth reimaging of the original 1937 film, has become a pop culture phenomenon on a level usually reserved for blockbusters where the characters wear capes or carry lightsabers. It’s grossed over $350M at the worldwide box office on a budget of less than $40M (as of writing, it’s the only film in the domestic top-ten for the year that’s not part of a franchise). It’s received widespread critical acclaim, currently sitting at 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and 88 on MetaCritic, and it’s widely expected to be a juggernaut throughout awards season (shameless plug). The movie isn’t without its detractors, but they’re a pretty clear minority. A Star Is Born is one of the most significant cultural events of the year any way you slice it.
It’s easy to see why A Star Is Born has shown such widespread appeal. The movie repackages classic sensibilities into something that is so obviously now, taking a basic story that’s (literally) been told many times before and turning it into one of the more refreshing studio offerings in a long time through sheer emotional intelligence and chemistry between leads. It’s irresistible from its opening moments. Unabashedly romantic, yet more poignant in its handling of artistic existentialism and addiction’s impact on a relationship than you expect, A Star Is Born hits every emotional note.
Of course, much of the film’s relevance and staying power can certainly be attributed to its soundtrack, which debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 and spent three weeks there, becoming the first movie soundtrack to do so since that of High School Musical 2. “Shallow,” the lead single from A Star Is Born, became Lady Gaga’s longest running #1 song, an impressive feat considering she’s had fifteen different tracks enter the top-ten. More importantly than chart data, however, is the vast majority of the songs from A Star Is Born being actually good, as opposed to actually bad. A musical (or a music-driven drama, depending on how exactly you want to classify the film) is only as good as the songs therein.
The stylings of the soundtrack jump around from country to blues rock to glam-pop to piano ballads. It’s a simple but enjoyable sonic experience, one that makes a point to always keep the emphasis on the lyrics relevant to the film’s story. The album isn’t merely a collection of songs played in the background for a few seconds during the film; it is the film. A great soundtrack should mirror the experience of watching the film. A Star Is Born certainly does that.
That’s why I’m here. As your friendly neighborhood A Star Is Born expert who’s seen the film four times and listened to the soundtrack so many times that I’ve memorized Gaga’s breathing patterns on each song, and as an online person doomed to rank anything and everything, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time arguing with myself about what the best and worst songs from the movie are. I love this movie so much that I’m currently planning a day-trip to 44.6148° N, 69.1209° W. So I ranked all eighteen tracks. Both song quality in a vacuum and how they play within the context of the movie factored into these rankings. If you disagree with my choices, so be it. Just don’t try to lecture me because *Jackson Maine voice* you couldn’t be my dad if you fuckin’ tried.
#18) “Music To My Eyes”
The only song from the movie that’s legitimately bad. I had to make a separate Spotify playlist with the entire soundtrack minus this song. Not only does the instrumentation lull me to sleep but the lyrics are a really bad and repetitive extended metaphor. “I wanna learn your every line / I wanna fill your empty spaces / I wanna play the part to reach your heart”…okay, c’mon now. It’s the worst song Gaga has ever written (don’t you dare suggest something from ARTPOP is worse. Respect ARTPOP you heathens).
#17) “I Don’t Know What Love Is”
It’s not bad. Gaga flexes her big voice and Cooper’s soulful bellowing assists her nicely. It’s just boring compared to the other duets and doesn’t really have a role in the movie. I’m pretty sure it features maracas too; a cool instrument, but not a particularly fitting one here.
#16) “Out Of Time”
No lyrics for this one. It’s one of those warm-up grooves a band plays to open the show while they’re waiting for the singer to finish wiping his Percocet powder into his last glass of whiskey (at least if that singer is Jackson Maine). But it’s easy to pick up a rhythm and tap your foot to it, especially when the bass kicks in halfway through.
#15) “Too Far Gone”
This would rank higher if it wasn’t just a minute and a half long. Cooper singing “Please don’t tell me I’m too far gone, I can’t go on if I ain’t livin’ in your arms” sort of sums up his whole character. He’s got a guitar case full of destructive demons and the only reason he has to live is Ally (Gaga), which is an unfair responsibility to put on a person you love.
#14) “Heal Me”
One of Ally’s sellout bops, “Heal Me” and the rest of the bunch aren’t nearly as bad as some would have you believe, at least not intentionally so. Those folks are not reading the film correctly. The movie isn’t anti-pop; it stars one of the two or three biggest pop stars of the century, for god’s sake. But Jackson Maine’s personal problems and jealousy cause *him* to become anti-pop. When one person in a relationship is an addict, naturally, everything for everyone becomes about them and their addiction. It’s very tough, but it’s real. From its opening moments, this is a film from Jackson’s perspective. Folks not consciously realizing that is what’s caused them to be confused, and thus think the movie hates pop music.
#13) “Is That Alright?”
One of Gaga’s weepy ballads. Not the strongest by any means, but a beautiful little throwaway nonetheless. She’s such a damn good singer. This movie understands that it’s hard to top her sitting behind a piano. It’s an ode to Jackson, whom Ally loves deeply despite every sign saying that the love isn’t healthy. “Family dinners and family trees / Teaching the kids to say thank you and please” *wipes tear*, the future the Maines never got to have.
#12) “Before I Cry”
Gaga ballad. A very good one. I bumped this over “Is That Alright?” because the music backing her is a bit more interesting.
#11) “Black Eyes”
The first and heaviest song we hear in A Star Is Born, “Black Eyes” plays a very important role. It has to make us believe that Jackson Maine could be a rockstar. I certainly bought it. While his singing during the chorus sounds like me half-drunk doing a Creed impression, the song still rules. Few sounds are cooler than that southern rock blend of electric riffing and piano.
#10) “Diggin’ My Grave”
Okay, this song fucking rules. It sounds more country than I usually go for, but I can’t help it. The chorus is probably the best Cooper and Gaga sound singing simultaneously. It also features the best guitar solo on the whole soundtrack, courtesy of Lukas Nelson (son of Willie). I watched the Country Music Awards in their entirety solely to see Kacey Musgraves and this is better than anything nominated for song of the year. Diggin’ my, diggin’ my, diggin’ my…
#9) “La Vie en rose”
Not an original of course. Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en rose” is an artifact of the big band pop era, and one of the most commonly covered songs of all-time. But it ranks high because Gaga absolutely kills it, and it gets bonus points for its role in the movie. This is where Jackson falls for Ally. His desperation for a drink after a show sees him unwittingly stumble into a drag bar just in time to watch Ally perform. He is instantly transfixed. The red lighting in the bar makes his boyish smile glow. When she lays back on the bar and hits that last big note, then turns her neck and looks him in the eyes…I felt that.
#8) “Hair Body Face”
Another one of Ally’s sellout bops. My favorite thing about these songs is that if Gaga & Co. really are trying to mock and critique the state of pop, they’re not doing a great job, because the tracks are unironically good. This sounds like it could easily have been cut from The Fame, which is now ten (!!!) years old.
It’s kind of a narcissistic song but oh well, “I told my dyin’ daddy that I had to run away / Looked him in the eye and said there ain’t no other way”. Some nice electric guitar from Gaga regular Tim Stewart as well.
#6) “Why Did You Do That?”
Colloquially known as the “ass jeans song”, this is the best of Ally’s sellout bops, and marks a turning point in the movie. It’s a big solo hit for Ally. Jackson hates the pop direction of it, hates that she performs it on SNL backed by dancers showing a lot of skin, and hates that it features the line “Why do you look so good in those jeans? Why’d you come around me with an ask like that?” His jealousy is what causes that unfair hate, and it leads to the Bathtub Scene/Scene 98, perhaps the finest scene in the movie. The song itself is the perfect 2018 pop song; it both became a meme and features a repetitive hook that’s frustratingly catchy.
#5) “Maybe It’s Time”
A nice, quiet little song and the best Jackson solo cut. Its first appearance in the film comes early as Jackson plays it for a couple of people at the bar while he waits for Ally to get ready. It’s a song about the struggle of change, a bit ominous if you know where the film is headed going in.
#4) “Look What I Found”
Ally’s solo debut. First we see her sounding it out in a diner, then laying it down in the booth- struggling at first but figuring it out once Jackson suggests she play piano along with recording the vocals. It’s a great pop-rock cut, even if the opening lines are contradictory…”I’m alone in my house, I’m out on the town”. IT CAN’T BE BOTH ALLY.
#3) “I’ll Never Love Again” (Film Version)
Here we go, we’re into the big three.
Jackson Maine commits suicide at the end of the movie. He can’t live a sober life, and the realization that he almost ruined Ally’s career and is holding her back (explained harshly by the sleazy manager) is too much for him. The film ends with Ally performing this ballad (written but never performed by Jackson) to a packed theater. Even the most cynical will tear up a bit. The camera moves around Ally on stage as she belts out the heartbreaking words, we occasionally cut to brief images of key moments in the film, and then as the song winds down: BOOM, hard cut to Jackson rehearsing it on the piano just days before his death. It’s the most powerful single moment in the movie, one of many choices made by Cooper that suggests sometimes the most simple cinematic language is the most effective, and the reason why I’ll always prefer the film version of the song over the extended version.
A huge hit, a pop radio sensation, something destined to be a karaoke duet classic for decades. You’ve heard “Shallow.” It’s the film’s signature song. It’s the “star is born” moment in A Star Is Born. Ally flies to Jackson’s show. He starts playing a simple arrangement and singing a verse with a melody she recognizes, because it’s the song she was writing in her head and teased for him in a parking lot the evening prior. She comes in from side stage and starts singing. At first, she’s a bit timid during her verse, then she begins gaining confidence during the chorus, and by the time she gets to the belting of the bridge she’s fully into it. It goes viral. Ally is a star.
Yeah, the song is great too. It puts the two stars and their chemistry front and center, backed by some simple but instantly recognizable acoustic picking. The chorus is a show-stopper. If you don’t like “Shallow” you’re honestly just a fucking asshole. It’s going to win the Oscar and it deserves it.
#1) “Always Remember Us This Way”
I’ve gone back and forth on “Shallow” vs “Always Remember Us This Way”. On one hand, “Shallow” includes Bradley Cooper and shows off the palpable chemistry he has with Gaga. On the other, “Always Remember Us This Way” is all Gaga, who’s obviously the better singer of the two. In the movie, “Shallow” serves as Ally’s big breakout and kicks the narrative tires into motion…but then again, “Always Remember Us This Way” is shown with Ally performing it by herself on stage, Jackson looking on and realizing she’s become a bigger star than even he imagined. That’s just as important, right?
Both have a killer chorus. Are you an “I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in” person or a “So when I’m all choked up and I can’t find the words” type of lad? I suppose what tips the scale for me is the backing instrumentation and style. “Always Remember Us This Way” is a piano ballad that would be at home on an Elton John greatest hits album. Gaga’s vocal is explosive. The climax is as simple as her crooning “Hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo hoo hooooooooo”. I can’t get this song out of my head. I am obsessed.
That’s all I got. If you still haven’t seen or heard A Star Is Born, do yourself a favor and spend a couple hours with it. The film is still in theaters across the country and the album is available everywhere.