I don’t get out to the movies much. That fact is not merely a matter of my laziness or the presence of Netflix. In truth, there are just very few occasions when a new movie comes out that excites or inspires me much, let alone motivates me to actually get to a theater. So the release last month of A Star Is Born, the 4th edition of a sappy saga last made in 1976 with Barbra Streisand in the lead role, seemed about the unlikeliest of candidates possible to have me alter that policy. I, however, dragged my wife and rushed to my local Cineplex, paid the outrageous cost to sit in a dark room with strangers, and saw it. And I did so for just one reason: Lukas Nelson.
The 2018 film stars the supremely talented Stefani Germanotta (a.k.a. Lady Gaga) in Babs’ old role, alongside Bradley Cooper (also making his directorial debut) as Jackson Maine, a rootsy rocker at the center of the story. But Lukas Nelson, the arresting 29-year-old country/rock superstar-in-the-making (who I’ve also twice previously written about Here and Here), was an essential part of the film, perhaps even the most critical part, given that the narrative was entirely based on musician characters and the music world. As Billboard put it in their review, “Bradley Cooper found the missing piece to his musical puzzle – and the living, breathing inspiration for Jackson Maine – strumming guitar next to Neil Young in the middle of the desert.”
That desert was specifically at the 2016 classic rock extravaganza Desert Trip in Indio, CA., on the grounds of the Coachella Festival, where Lukas Nelson was performing in his regular side gig – as leader of Promise Of The Real, the backing band for Neil Young. Bradley Cooper, already well into the A Star Is Born remake project at that time, approached Nelson there, originally asking him to work on the film as a music and “authenticity” consultant, a pivotal role that eventually grew to also being the movie’s chief songwriter, as Nelson wrote or co-wrote six of the film’s original songs, producer on the bulk of the film’s soundtrack, and even his appearance (with Promise Of The Real) as Bradley Cooper/Jackson Maine’s backing band throughout multiple scenes in the movie. Not bad for a chance meeting “in the middle of the desert.”
While Nelson was forging a bond with Cooper during the making of the film – Cooper is said to have based his character on a Lukas Nelson “template,” utilizing many of his specific mannerisms as well as his general mystique to bring Jackson Maine to life – the songwriting and collaboration process also allowed Lukas to foster both a working relationship and soon a friendship with Lady Gaga. “Gaga came by,” Lukas related casually, “I met her and we clicked. We became good friends, and then we started writing together.” And that, in turn, led to Gaga’s under-the-radar (generally uncredited) contribution as a backing vocalist on two songs for Nelson’s self-titled 2017 debut album for Fantasy Records, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, one of which being the exquisite trippy jam, ‘Find Yourself’,’ featured here. It’s a hip-swaying ode to a lover to basically get their shit together, and beginning with the first chorus Gaga’s brawny vocal counterpoints masterfully complement Nelson’s slow burn. Their distinctive voices don’t necessarily blend, they weave, and to exceptional effect. Still, it’s Lukas’s guitar solos that get me from swaying to jamming, first the break at 2:47, and then the lengthy outro from 4:34 on. Some brilliant finger-picking, with feel, and yet still unsurprising for a multi-talented, generational force such as Lukas. Though he’s most readily found at present on Country/Rock outlets (like my own home-away-from-home, Sirius Outlaw Country channel 60), his musicality is – as CMT News described “Genre-bending, ever-evolving and explorative; like a southern rock dream, with gritty soul, the occasional steel guitar, and nods to his famous father Willie Nelson and his mentor Neil Young.” Yeah, that sounds real good. I like it. And I can’t wait to hear more of it.
Before I forget, back to the movie: Despite my heavily muted expectations, it was fabulous, impressive in every regard – the portrayals, the cinematography and direction, and, of course, the music (thank you, Lukas), all just phenomenal (this non-movie buff nevertheless is predicting multiple Oscar nominations). The film opens, its very first scene, with Cooper wailing on the scorching tune ‘Black Eyes,’ shown in jarringly intense, penetrating close-ups in front of a huge crowd (the live music scenes were filmed in front of actual audiences at the Stagecoach and Glastonbury music festivals). It’s riveting and entrancing, and the movie rarely lets up from there over the next 2-plus hours (plus as a bonus, there are supporting but vital parts for an all-star trio of Sam Elliott, Andrew “Dice” Clay, and Dave Chappelle). A two-thumbs-up recommendation all the way around. I’m including below a video clip covering a lighter song from the film, ‘Shallow,’ a Cooper/Gaga duet (yes, Cooper really sings!) – with Nelson appearing in on-stage background shots at 1:06, 1:33 and throughout. Out of context, it may appear on the sappier side that I’d originally feared, but it’s emotional, gripping, and magnificent within the plot arc and setting. Seriously, see the movie. A Star Is Born has already become a critical darling and a box office success, and the film’s soundtrack debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 and has remained in the top 5 since. The triumphs, though, don’t seem to have fazed the refreshingly earnest and modest Lukas Nelson. “While I appreciate that it’s getting recognition,” he said, “I’m just proud that it’s a good piece of art.” That’s a heavy-hitter, leading-man line.
Be advised: Another star’s been born.
Finally, it seems worth noting that after progressing through a remarkable series of memorable characters over his 17-year acting career – from Wet Hot American Summer, Wedding Crashers, The Hangover, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, American Sniper, and even The Elephant Man on Broadway – to become one of Hollywood’s unquestioned biggest leading men, Bradley Cooper’s captivating musical foray in A Star Is Born was – per this additional clip below – perhaps preordained by his prodigious air-guitaring display on The Tonight Show in 2015.