Stars are born every minute, and if you’re the A Star Is Born franchise, you’re born roughly every 20-40 years with a different icon at the center. This time around, it’s Lady Gaga, who is already a pop chameleon having lived seemingly a thousand different lives in the 10 years since she burst on the scene. As the street smart, talented and undervalued Ally, she has a voice bigger than the bedroom in her dad’s house where she lives, bigger than the restaurant job she loathes, bigger than the cramped drag bar where she’s allowed to perform and even bigger than her small frame, which often looks diminutive next to Bradley Cooper’s troubled rock star Jackson Maine.
One point of A Star Is Born is that everything about Ally’s life grows to match her talent. The progression of songs in the film show that: when she lacks the confidence to sing the songs she has written, she goes for classics like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “La Vie En Rose.” As Jackson opens her up to her potential, she moves to the stages of the amphitheaters he plays in, singing grandiose power ballads like the otherworldly, Mark Ronson-assisted highlight “Shallow” or the explosive “Always Remember Us This Way.”
The songs from the early portion of the movie are almost impenetrably perfect. Gaga and Cooper take the lead on writing their own songs for most of the album. With Lukas Nelson and sometimes Gaga’s help, Cooper found the blues-inflected, country-rock soul of Jackson Maine with gritty, down-home lyrics propelled by the Nelson-led band that backs Maine both on- and off- stage. Cooper’s voice, lowered for the film to create the world-weary, addiction-addled Maine, is surprisingly great, either crackling like a pit of fire when he begins to holler or settling into a warm, smoky rasp during the ballads. The first time we get a taste of just how talented both Maine and Cooper are is when he performs the acoustic ballad “Maybe It’s Time” in the drag bar where he meets Ally, killing time as he waits for her to clean off her make-up and hair paint. Jason Isbell wrote the sullen triumph of a song, and Cooper delivers it with devastating resignation well before we come to grasp just how lost Maine actually is.
Following the covers, “Shallow” is the first time we hear an Ally original. That Note, the one from the trailers that immediately captured the world’s attention, is as earth-shaking on record as it in that moment, and when it arrives it feels earned and like it’s the first time we’re actually seeing Ally. The music Gaga helps write for this stretch in Ally’s career, where she’s still brunette and performing with a man she is falling in love with, is gorgeous — romantic without being trite and powerful. Some of those even feel like they should’ve been the template for what she aimed for with Joanne, her most recent album, which was designed as a country-pop, back-to-her-roots moment.
As the movie and album progress, the focus becomes Ally. She is rightfully scouted by a manager after touring with Jackson. Excellent piano-bop “Look What I Found” launches a series of pop singles that are catchy, wonderful and The Fame-adjacent in their execution. These songs are placed in the film to call the pop music world vapid and soul-crushing but they’re written by one of the 21st century’s most trailblazing stars, so even if they are supposed to underscore the idea of Ally losing her writing voice, they’re still deliciously fun. The most shocking of that pop nose-dive is from her Saturday Night Live performance: the Diane Warren co-penned “Why Did You Do That?” It’s meant to be slightly ridiculous but it’s a highlight, a moment of easiness in between the heaviness of the love songs.
In every incarnation of A Star Is Born, it takes the survival of tragedy to turn the lead into a star. After that climactic moment, Ally takes the stage one last time with a song written by her husband, though “I’ll Never Love Again” is actually a Gaga special. It’s a soulful moment, closer to her belting “La Vie En Rose” in the bar than it is to the songs she sang while on tour with Jackson or as an orange-haired pop star. She’s composed, crying in a gown in front of an orchestra, facing a stoic audience for what is assumed to be the first time in a while. “I’ll Never Love Again” is meant to be the biggest moment after a series of big moments and it feels as earned as the first time Ally sang an original song in front of an audience. But when the film-version of the song switches to the sound of Jackson singing it to Ally in their home for the first time, that’s when it becomes as classic as the star it births.