Six Damn Fine Degrees #49 – Three generations of songs in A Star is Born

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

To me, Julie’s fascinating comparison of the earlier variations of what came to be A Star is Born triggered many a musical memory and it made me wonder how besides plot, characters and settings the musical flavours of this often-remade screenplay had changed over time. Specifically, what would the three Oscar-recognised songs from the Judy Garland version (“The Man that Got Away”, 1955), the Streisand remake (“Evergreen”, 1976) and the recent Lady Gaga iteration (“In the Shallows”, 2018) tell us about each moment this star-making (or -breaking) story hit the big screen?

“The Man that Got Away” was merely Oscar-nominated (losing out to schmaltzy “Three Coins in the Fountain” from the film of the same name), but is certainly among the most well-known songs of Judy Garland and James Mason’s epic iteration of A Star is Born (1955). Written by Harold Arlen (music) and Ira Gershwin (lyrics), it came from two of the most prolific songwriters of the time: Ira, famously the older brother of George Gershwin, had penned success shows like Funny Face and Porgy and Bess and hit songs like “Embraceable You” to “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”, while Harold Arlen was the famous composer of The Wizard of Oz (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” arguably being Judy Garland’s immortal signature tune) whereas his songs (‘Stormy Weather’, ‘One For My Baby’ and ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’ among them) were already becoming vocal jazz standards at the time the film came out.

The song itself is jazzy, bluesy slow builder of an anthem, growing steadily in its singers’ despair of a man she seems to have definitely lost. Garland renders it perfectly in the film, lost yet forceful, and increasingly belts it out at her audience (primarly James Mason and us), as well as the surrounding jazz musicians. It’s perfectly in tune with the moment in the film yet also one of the most darkly heartfelt vocal jazz classics of its time, a key example of the era of Arlen and the Gershwins, but also of the disovery of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Johnny Mercer among many others. It was noticeably the African-American voices of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughn making these tunes immortal on so-called ‘American Songbook’ albums for a primarily white American audience – a strange success story of how the perception of typically American songwriting was in fact a successful amalgamation of (European immigrant, often Jewish vaudevillian) songwriting, African-American performers and bandleaders, as well as a white post-war middle class of consumers. “The Man that Got Away” was Garland’s song in the film, but anyone from Ella to Dinah Washington and Rosemary Clooney recorded it at the time.

The musical landscape had radically changed repeatedly since the 1950s when “Evergreen” from the Barbara Streisand/Kris Kristofferson version (1976) was awarded the Oscar for Best Song. The game-changing influence of rock’n’roll, the Beatles craze and the 1968-inspired rock and folk revolutions had already passed by, however, and American popular music had reverted into the cushiony comfort of ‘Easy Listening’ (or what some would call elevator music). Barbara Streisand, star of musical hits like Funny Girl and Hello Dolly at that point, would have just as easily been able to give a Garlandesque belt-out (even if Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli had just arguably taken over the reins with Cabaret), but her roles in the new A Star is Born version and romantic hits like The Way We Were made her the queen of soft pop, too.

Written by Paul Williams and Barbara Streisand herself, ‘Evergreen’ is the epitome of that cushiony style, literally starting with the line “Love, soft as an easy chair”, as if this was an advertisement for a romantic retirement home for ageing couples. It’s an archetypical Williams song as well, who had become a household name for the Easy Listening stars of the time: “Rainy Days and Mondays” as well as “We’ve Only Just Begun” for the Carpenters and “Me and You Against the World” for Helen Reddy were among his biggest hits, and his later scores for Bugsy Malone and several Muppets movies would also firmly connect him with harmless family entertainment. Williams, though, was more than just cozy pop, as his songs for David Bowie (“Fill Your Heart”) or his reappreciation by Daft Punk (“Touch”) would later show. ‘Evergreen’ was certainly his most recognised venture into film music, winning him both the Oscar and a Grammy. Barbara Streisand’s interpretation is lovely and gains some strength in the course of it while Kristofferson’s contribution remains minimal (who would want to mess with Barbara anyway?). While the song might no longer be a standout today, it still embodies the need for comfort and repose of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate years in American popular music. Unsurprisingly, this version of A Star is Born with two of the biggest stars of the 70s became a musical success.

While the men in the earlier iterations of A Star is Born often took a musical backseat for the standout moments, the same can definitely not be said for the 2018 version starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. Of course, much of the promotional material focused on Gaga’s spectacular turn from stage to silver screen (she will soon be able to prove herself again in House of Gucci), yet it was just as much of a surprise to see Cooper sing his heart out – and being quite good at it, too. Their performance at the Oscars of ‘In the Shallows’ might have caused more headlines for the supposed hints at their presumed love affair, but musically, it represented the shift to a performance of equals. It was even more surprising to see Lady Gaga, who had made herself a career based on solo diva performances and head-turning ego shows, turn out to be not only an astonishingly solid actress but also a modest co-star on film. It made her interpretation of the legendary role all the more touching and believable.

‘In the Shallows’, written by Gaga herself along with Andrew Wyatt, Anthony Rossomando and Mark Ronson, is another slow builder of a song and offers Gaga a fabulous opportunity to showcase her vocal capabilities – from soft to powerful and back. There are grand moments in it, when her on-screen character seems to reach new heights in her voice while we as the off-screen observers are not sure whether we are watching Lady Gaga or her film character Ally Campana – they have become one. The song did not only win the Oscar, the Golden Globe and two Grammys (among practically every other important music award) but was a massive hit among movie audiences and Lady Gaga fans. The chorus (“In the sha-sha-sha-ha-lows”) could be heard from young and old in rare displays of public singing at the time and must have graced many a wedding or celebration of challenging love relationships since.

Thus, it became not only Lady Gaga’s hit and one for the film, but it proved yet again what fertile musical ground A Star is Born has been over such a long time in movie music history. Who knows what the next version (presumably in about 30 years?) will bring in terms of a guaranteed hit song!

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