It is always difficult to assess a soundtrack album, to try and separate it from the film it comes attached to. Fortunately, in the case of 2018’s A Star Is Born, the soundtrack consciously replicates the experience of watching the film, to please those who go to the soundtrack for that very purpose, while also adding several songs to fill out the world of the story and give you a unique experience a little bit separate from the film itself.
A Star Is Born has two album versions available to stream, one which features dialogue interludes from the film, and one which has just the songs, please. The experiences of listening to either do not differ much—the songs are the same, after all, and are in the same order—but the album with dialogue does work harder to mimic the emotional journey of the film. This can be good if you’re looking for that emotional catharsis every time, and plan on listening to the album in chronological order (which is not a bad idea). If you’re a superfan, you may even start to treasure these moments as important tracks unto themselves. If you’ve seen the film, the inclusion of some of the dialogue can be a bit odd, as they are often truncated and abridged sections of dialogue, edited down to a few seconds that sort of work to set up the next song, as if this was a traditional musical and characters broke into song right after. That’s a fine effect to go for, and it does subtly work to set-up the emotion of a song, but it isn’t ultimately necessary to enjoy the music. The best “dialogue clip” is the one that isn’t dialogue, but Lady Gaga’s character singing the opening lines to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” a capella—a small, slightly haunting moment that works as a prologue for the vocal performances she will give you throughout the rest of the album.
But how are those songs? Overall: good. Sometimes they are really good, and generally much better than the majority of original movie songs are. Because of the different careers and trajectories of the main characters (and vocal abilities of the actors), you get a few different styles of songs that will surely pique your interest in some way, depending on what you prefer. The album starts heavy with Bradley Cooper’s songs, as his character is the primary musician in the film at that time. The surprisingly thrilling thumper “Black Eyes” opens the album with an explosion of energy that will carry you for quite a while. All of Cooper’s (or “Jackson Maine’s”) songs have the texture of songs that need to be played while attending a July crawfish boil while wearing jean cut-offs and stomping your dusty cowboy boots. They exude sweat, dirt, and booze. These early tracks—“Out of Time” and “Alibi” in addition to “Black Eyes” are the heavy rockers—are appealing primarily because of the music, rather than the singing or the lyrics. In fact, “Out of Time” is entirely instrumental, while “Alibi” has the most annoying vocal performance—although not outright bad. Cooper is a fine singer, and his voice is entirely appropriate for this country-rock genre of music, but it is not fine enough to be the main attraction for a song. The song that is the most pared down for him, “Maybe It’s Time,” still gains most of its beauty from the gentle, sweet acoustic guitar work; although his vocals are equally bittersweet. But once the album gets going, it’s easy for his performances to pale next to Gaga’s.
The first track we get from Lady Gaga alone is her live rendition of “La Vie En Rose,” placed at the top of the album amidst several Cooper songs. What can I say, except Lady Gaga can sing? What’s most charming about this version is that the wit and playfulness she exhibits in the scene is very much palpable through the recording as well. After a few Cooper songs, the middle of the album begins with “Shallow,” the lead single of the record and the song featured in the gloriously dramatic trailer. It’s still good, even without an exhilarating montage attached, and Gaga’s vocal performance is emotional, strong and the song is damn catchy. Most of these songs are incredibly ear-wormy, to such a realistic degree. We get used to treating soundtrack songs like something separate from “real music,” but the majority of these songs—in fact, maybe every single one—could be played on numerous radio stations right now and fit in perfectly with everything else.
The rest of the middle section is populated with duets, which mirrors the middle section of the film in which Cooper and Gaga’s characters are working together at a semi-equal level. This is also the section in which we get new songs or expanded songs. “Music To My Eyes” is a little cloying, a gentle country-rock ballad that is what I think of as a “background song”—something that you immediately stop paying attention to as soon as you start listening so that it just fades into the background. It’s fine, but it feels a bit stale, like something I’ve heard a dozen times before and am not interested in hearing much more of. “Diggin’ My Grave” is a rollicking duet, which feels very modern country. Gaga’s vocals blast out of the speakers on this one, but Cooper’s gravelly tone works well as support, as does the freeform-feeling guitar work that snakes up, around, and through the performances.
After those duets, we slide into the Gaga portion of the album. “Always Remember Us This Way” kicks it off, a piano ballad that carries over this character’s personal, heartfelt songwriting first displayed in “Shallow.” Gaga’s character, Ally, soon transitions into a pop star and the songs show that quickly here. These songs are fascinating because they so expertly model the generic, oh-so-familiar by now production of every female pop song on the radio, but they also quickly show Ally’s slide into pop sameness and mediocrity (OK, that may be a subjective opinion). “Look What I Found” starts the section with a piano beat and a horn section, but still clear and skilled Gaga vocals. “Heal Me” uses a doctor metaphor for love, with more electronic production elements, “Why Did You Do That?” is a fantastically shallow lust song (“why’d you come around me with an ash like that?”) that will burrow inside of your head and start building a house there. Finally, “Hair Body Face” rounds out the series. Each song gets progressively electronically-based, with Gaga’s vocals becoming less complex and more drenched in production. Reaching this point of the album, it starts to feel as if you’ve listened to Lady Gaga’s real discography in reverse order, moving from songs that are closer to “Joanne” to tracks that could have sat side-by-side songs like “Boys Boys Boys” on The Fame. These pop songs don’t have the unique bent the best Lady Gaga songs have, however, and so end up sounding like every song on pop radio. Some people might like that—and to be honest, I kind of do. They’re definitely better than any Fifth Harmony song I have ever heard.
Mixed in among these pop confections are one more duet and one more Gaga ballad. “I Don’t Know What Love Is” is a fairly effective love song between Gaga and Cooper, in a similar vein to “Music To My Eyes,” but slightly more emotionally specific. “Is That Alright?” is a wedding ballad sung by Gaga, and I will be truly disappointed if no one uses this at their wedding in the next six months. The song has Gaga belting out that she wants “you for the rest of my life,” through kids and old age, asking “is that alright?” You can feel your emotions being manipulated, but you are powerless to stop it.
The end of the album features two relatively disposable songs from each performer. Gaga’s “Before I Cry” is a pop anthem-ballad, with reverb-heavy handclaps and big vocals, but its purpose isn’t totally clear here. It works best as a transition song from the dance-pop tracks from earlier into the emotional final ballad. Before we get there, we get one last Cooper track “Too Far Gone.” This is possibly his most country-sounding song, and again doesn’t feel totally necessary. It feels as if they included this track, as well as “Before I Cry,” in the album just to nudge and remind people, “hey remember where we are in the plot right now?”
The album ends with first the film version, and then the extended version of Gaga’s emotionally climactic and cathartic ballad “I’ll Never Love Again.” The extended version is about thirty seconds longer and does not feature the hard cut to Bradley Cooper singing the final lines. The two songs are basically giving you the option of crying a little or crying a lot. The song, even without knowing the context in the film I think, is another successfully emotionally manipulative song, like “Is That Alright?”, but with a slightly gentler touch, with a vocal performance by Gaga that builds in power.
Once it’s over, if you’ve listened to the whole album, you should be a little bit exhausted. You’ve stomped those cowboy boots, you’ve rocked with those duets, and you’ve moved to those dance tracks—whenever you haven’t been quietly contemplating the complexities of love and co-dependency. The album, like the film, is an emotionally loaded and demanding experience that is surprisingly long, but it’s generally a good time.