Bradley Cooper might’ve been inspired by seeing a Metallica concert at Yankee Stadium for his “onstage” approach to directing the performance scenes in A Star Is Born, but it was the country-rock of Creedence Clearwater Revival and raw rootsy rock of Neil Young that appears to have infiltrated the songwriting for the movie.
The original soundtrack is integral to the plotline. Many of the lyrics are about wanting and longing for change, but noting the struggle. Some express the great love and beautiful bond the booze-addled rock star (Jackson Maine, played by Cooper) and neophyte singer-songwriter (Ally, played by Lady Gaga) have for each other.
Bottomline: the music stands up, movie or no movie. They are timeless, emotional, gritty and earnest. They sound like songs written by artists who, quite frankly, are supremely messed up but hit to the core of the listener.
“Baby it’s time to let the old ways die…takes a lot to change a man and it takes a lot to try,” Cooper/Jackson sings in “Maybe It’s Time.” And in “Alibit, “all the good times I find myself longing for change.” Ally/Lady Gaga has these intense lines in “Shallow,” “I’m off the deep end/Watch as I dive in/I’ll never meet the ground/Crash through the surface/Where they can’t hide us/We’re far from the shallow now.”
After the screening of A Star Is Born at the Elgin at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Sunday night, Cooper tells the packed theatre at the Q&A: “Music is a character in the movie. There’s not one lyric at any moment of the movie that doesn’t reflect whether it’s the character that’s singing it or the character that’s watching it or where we are in the film story-wise, and it’s something we cultivated along with the script while we were shooting.
“We had an arsenal of songs at the top of the film, but we were writing songs during the filming. We were changing songs on the day. We performed three or four songs within a scene so that I would have it at my disposal in the editing room. And that’s because I was working with these incredible musicians.”
Cooper first heard Gaga sing Edith Piaf’s signature song “La Vie En Rose” at a charity event — she performs it at the outset of A Star Is Born and it’s on the soundtrack, which comes out Oct. 5, the same day the film hits theaters — but when the pair first officially sat down to talk about the film Cooper wanted her to sing CCR’s version of “The Midnight Special.” She printed off the lyrics and sat down with him at the piano to give it a go.
She said at the Q&A that she stopped playing “instantly” when Cooper started singing, blown away by his “incredible” voice. “He sings from his soul. He sings from his gut. There are people who can do many acrobatics with their voice, but to tell a story is a completely different animal and I hear it instantly. He was telling a story sitting there right with me and he filmed us singing together for the first time. We were laughing and harmonizing and playing off one another.”
On the soundtrack, Cooper and Gaga perform all the songs, either together or separately, and both have significant writing and production credits. There are other contributors too, including Jason Isbell, Mark Ronson, Hillary Lindsey, Dave Cobb, Paul Kennerley, Julia Michaels, Justin Tranter and Lori McKenna, and one man, Lukas Nelson (Willie’s son), who is all over the album. He also appears in the film with his band, Promise of the Real.
“A lot of the music was inspired by and curated by the incredible person I saw at Desert Trip next to Neil Young and I found myself only looking at him, which is incredible,” said Cooper. “He’s a huge part of this movie. Jack’s band is his band.” Cooper calls him “an incredible musician, incredible songwriter, the sickest guitar player you will ever hear.” They apparently hammered out songs and rehearsed “in my goddam basement for a year,” Cooper laughed.
Nelson said he was persuaded to get involved with A Star Is Born for one reason — he saw Cooper on Jimmy Fallon air-guitaring the lengthy solo in Young’s “Down By The River.”
“I thought, ‘Well, I like this guy,’ because, to me, there’s two types of people: people who like Neil Young and people who don’t. I know I’m preaching to the choir [in Canada], but I mean it. I’ve left dates because [laughs] [she’s said] ‘I don’t like his voice.’ ‘Oh, okay. My mom’s calling to go pick her up.’
“So that is what endeared me to Bradley at first, and he came to Desert Trip and literally had only seen the Neil Young set with us, with Promise of the Real, and then he called me up and I said ‘Sure, he’s a Neil Young fan. I’ll go sit and talk with him and hang out.’ And then he played me the recording of the Creedence song, ‘Midnight Special’ and holy shit he can sing. He’s got an ear. You have to have an ear to air-guitar the entire solo of ‘Down By The River.’ You have to know where the notes come; you have to know the phrasing of each note.”
Nelson then jumps to this memory, tying it together. “There’s this solo section where I’m playing this guitar lead part and it’s right in the scene where [Ally is] first coming to the show and she finally gets in the car to go see him and the music is playing and there’s that solo that’s happening — he sang me that whole solo. He sang the notes. He was singing it exactly the way that he wanted to hear it. So he was a musician already.”
As for Lady Gaga, she heard one of his songs and the two “connected musically and as friends. It’s beyond words so it all just came together in a really natural organic way. What it comes down to is it’s real. Every performance in this movie comes from a deep place, a real place and when it’s real, it resonates with people.”
To prove the point, actor Sam Elliott who plays Jackson’s brother, wipes away tears after watching the film: “Any time someone started singing in this thing, I was crying,” he admitted. “I was totally unprepared for that.”