One of the emotional climaxes of the new “A Star Is Born” remake arrives when Bradley Cooper, playing alcoholic country-rocker Jackson Maine, drunkenly humiliates his wife, a mortified Lady Gaga, at the Grammy Awards. But just before he makes a mockery of himself at the podium, Maine stumbles through a tribute segment to the late Roy Orbison. Hammered to the point of being barely conscious, he nevertheless makes it through some rowdy guitar licks on a rousing cover of Orbison’s famous “Oh, Pretty Woman,” while the real-life Brandi Carlile takes the vocal lead.
It’s an exciting, memorable scene. And it happens to come right as Orbison is already having a moment.
It’s been 31 years since T Bone Burnett assembled Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and others for the super-group tribute show “A Black and White Night” — a concert special Cooper’s scene knowingly references. Months after the special aired in 1988, at a mere 52, Orbison was dead. Three decades later, “A Star Is Born” proves how relevant Orbison’s music continues to be.
“The use of that song in that scene is so thoughtful, it’s genius,” says Alex Orbison, one of the late singer-songwriter’s sons. “Hats off to Bradley Cooper.” Alex, together with his brothers Wesley and Roy Jr., is the president and co-founder of Roy’s Boys, an organization committed to preserving and promoting the Orbison legacy. As heads of the estate, he and his brothers were contacted by the film’s producers to secure the rights to “Pretty Woman” and other Orbison tunes for use in the movie. “They knew they wanted my father’s music very early on, because the time between when they asked us and when the movie came out was so long I practically forgot about it,” he remembers.
The producers assured Alex that the Orbison scene would be a critical one in the picture, and that it would be an emotionally charged moment for the star. Alex recalls being “hugely excited” to sign off on the project, and was thrilled when a colleague saw an advanced screening and rang him up to describe the importance of the scene.
Carlile might have seemed like a random choice to sing Orbison on screen, but the choice was far from arbitrary. She’s proven herself a super-fan over the years, often adding “It’s Over” or “Crying” to her set as she rose through the ranks from clubs to amphitheater headliner. Last October, she and Chris Isaak were picked to induct Orbison into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame. On her social media at the time, Carlile posted: “Roy Orbison is perhaps the greatest singer of all time… I like to think of him up in heaven with Freddie Mercury, exchanging high C’s and striking a power pose.
Alex Orbison has been fielding a lot of phone calls lately, not only because of “A Star Is Born.” He likens the current interest in his father’s work to when Orbison had a massive career resurgence in the late 1980s, after David Lynch used his tunes in “Blue Velvet.”
A Roy Orbison hologram concert tour kicked off last week in Los Angeles — a project Alex and his brothers worked on closely — and this November sees the release of “Unchained Melodies,” a new album of Orbison music with London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This latest record, a sequel to last year’s successful “A Love So Beautiful,” goes deeper into the Orbison back catalog and features guest vocals from several members of his surviving family.
The project Alex is most excited about, however, is still to come: the first official Roy Orbison biopic, currently in development with a screenplay by Ray Gideon and Bruce Evans. “This has been in the works since literally 1965, in so many different incarnations,” Alex explains. “He was slated back then to tell the Roy Orbison Story, a rags to riches tale, but then tragedy struck.” Orbison famously lost two sons in a house fire and a wife in a motor accident. The new film “will include the twists and turns that made his life story super interesting.”
Even past boosters like Lynch might not have seen this posthumous comeback of a comeback coming. Says Alex, “This is definitely the year of Roy Orbison.”