When Bradley Cooper started drafting his directorial debut, his inner circle begged him not to touch A Star Is Born — the fourth iteration of the American musical staple.
He did it anyways.
And, thus far, the risk has been rewarding him precisely four-fold, netting rave reviews following all of its film festival debuts (even from Vanyland’s own Nick Johnston), serious across-the-board Oscar buzz, and a 93 percent Rotten Tomatoes score as of print time.
Lady Gaga, on the other monster paw, has shouldered a lot more flack over the past five years for her career choices, starting in 2013 with her edge-driven record ARTPOP. But’s she’s been pacing herself for a payout grander than petty outside approval, and after multiple musical eras of unfavorable risks, her accolades have arrived with A Star Is Born.
Long before Cooper’s people were nagging on him to pick a different flick to work on, the general population had started to alienate themselves from Gaga come the release of ARTPOP, when she seemed to fall out of the good graces of the press and public. After the fashionable art haus dissonance of Born This Way, ARTPOP presented the wrong kind of weird for the GP; its rabid rave ambiance, festering with vomit art and painful EDM explosions from addiction and sexual assault, made the record easy to politely ignore and skip over. All its neon showiness considered, for the average Top 40 listener, the album’s brash frenzy presented itself as more of an eyesore than an off-the-rafters party. Similarly, for staunch pop listeners, 2014’s jazz offering Cheek to Cheek with Tony Bennett was too rooted in traditionalism and old-school glamour — the orchestra-heavy “boring” kind. Completing the trilogy in 2016, Joanne planted itself between the two like a country-tinged outlier, equally removed from what had become Gaga’s signature brand of bizarre and her The Fame Monster-era dark-pop.
Both ARTPOP and Joanne have gone platinum, and Cheek to Cheek garnered a Grammy, but the back to back (to back) lack of a carbon copy of either “Bad Romance” or “Born This Way” led to a dip in the GP’s approval. Not counting her exceptional stints at The Oscars (2015 and 2016) and the Super Bowl Halftime Show (2017), both of which elicited “she can really sing, huh?” responses from the sonically braindead individuals among us, the hype behind Gaga had tapered off the “edge of glory” significantly after the 2009-2012 era.
Fans have stayed satiated — and for what it’s worth, all three records remain solid parts of Gaga’s discography, and I certainly adore them — but for people who didn’t identify as her devotees, the albums formed a holy trinity of the “wrong” kind of risks for a pop musician.
Meat dresses, suicide-simulation performances, and rolling up to the VMAs in drag are all fun to talk about, and you’d be hard-pressed to find people who didn’t enjoy discussing the taboo behind those things, among hundreds of Gaga’s other insanities and obscenities of her earlier days. Come the Born This Way Ball and its subsequent cancellation, however, attitudes shifted. Instead of Kermit the Frog dresses (and fire bras, and hair bows), new styles and subjects were on the table, and they weren’t nearly as primed for mass consumption. Performances like “Swine” at South by Southwest, touring with an aging jazz legend, and a sudden hurdle towards country music were all chancy moves, but not the kind that paired well with cheap watercooler pop culture gossip. It wasn’t cool to talk Gaga anymore. And Lady Gaga didn’t give a shit.
From a cause and effect standpoint, “La Vie En Rose,” the jazz standard that Gaga touted with Tony Bennett for Cheek to Cheek, is what got her involved in the A Star Is Born equation from the beginning. According to Vogue’s cover story on Gaga this month, Cooper spotted Gaga in Sean Parker’s backyard (of all places) belting the tune for a cancer benefit they had gathered for in 2016. He had Gaga’s agent on the phone to talk ASIB the next day.
It’s fitting then, that the same performance is exactly what ensnares his character Jackson Maine one unlikely night at a drag bar, when Gaga’s luminary-on-the-brink role Ally graciously sprawls herself across the bar and cocks her head at him, faux eyebrows and all.
Beyond the breadth of those two fateful encounters, her dedication to Cheek to Cheek, both on the road and in the studio, showcased more than her award-show-worthy vocal chops; it represented her appreciation and familiarity with the great American songbook. The lone fact that mythology of A Star Is Born has birthed three remakes solidifies its place in the musical history of the 20th century, and even though the 2018 version re-wrote the soundtrack, it doesn’t mean that the musical crew involved (Gaga, DJ White Shadow, Diane Warren, et al) could re-write the rules on what makes a classic piece of American music. A soaring duet like “Shallow” isn’t born from a repertoire that stops at 1950 or is limited to pop and rock archives, and ballads like “I’ll Never Love Again” and “I Don’t Know What Love Is” stem from a comparable familiarity with the greats.
The same goes for the angle of Joanne, Gaga’s 2016 album that delivered the perspective of an all-American girl kickin’ up dirt in dive bars. From Cooper’s thundering opening notes in “Black Eyes,” which prime the entire movie for his Southwestern swagger, Ally’s catalogue initially errs more towards Jackson’s style. Juxtapose Gaga’s winking cowboy apology tune “Sinner’s Prayer” from Joanne with “Always Remember Us This Way,” an ASIB Arizona sun-strewn serenade, and the Americana flows effortlessly from one track to the other. Without context, the pair of songs easily sound like record-mates.
As for ARTPOP’s influence, nothing on the soundtrack carries the same vein of electronic tension, and even at its poppiest moments like “Heal Me” and “Hair Body Face,” Ally’s on-screen catalogue recalls The Fame more than anything. It’s the film’s last moments, when Gaga delivers her final performance as Ally for “I’ll Never Love Again,” where ARTPOP leaps out. The closing five minutes of the flick thrust forward a similar agony to “Dope,” the lone piano ballad of her 2013 record that detailed her arduous inch towards personal redemption from drug addiction. Different situational backdrop, same aching on-screen tears shed.
When the credits roll, another Gaga solo, “Is That Alright?”, closes the newest ASIB chapter. The ballad makes for a guaranteed new wedding favorite, in which Gaga digs deep and strikes just a fraction of the emotional gold in the remake’s makeover.
And it’s all because she never once asked that very question of anyone but herself.
‘A Star Is Born’ hits theaters today, October 5. Featured photo courtesy of Warner Brothers. Follow Victoria Wasylak on Twitter @VickiWasylak