Where Bohemian Rhapsody Fails, A Star Is Born Succeeds
A Star Is Born, an Oscar bait drama about a declining drug-addicted country rock star entering into a relationship with a rising music artist, should not be as engrossing as the new Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody.
It shouldn’t be a contest should it? Queen’s albums qualified as musical events unto themselves, mad scientist concoctions of jazz, opera, heavy metal, and disco! What kind of minds and personalities dreamt this stuff up? How is that not instantly compelling raw storytelling material? How about Freddie Mercury’s adventurous, turbulent life as a blueprint? On top of that, Bohemian Rhapsody has its Freddie Mercury in Rami Malek, one of this generation’s most gifted actors.
A Star is Born is a debut feature directed by, and starring, Bradley Cooper. He is mostly known for middling comedies and a middling Clint Eastwood film. Lady Gaga, an unproven leading woman, is the co-lead. And it’s a fourth remake.
Comparing the two after fresh viewings, it’s even more obvious that it isn’t a contest. A Star Is Born destroys Bohemian Rhapsody. Like, in all areas. Especially musically. Specifically, the depiction of artists performing their songs for legions of adoring fans.
It makes all the sense in the world, though. A Star Is Born has things to say about the machinery of the music industry. On meaningful art drawing energy from the chaotic reality of life. It’s a splendid Hollywood Romance, sure, but the little textural details — the licks of sweaty hair plastered to shiny, crinkled foreheads — tell of frailty and authenticity.
Bohemian Rhapsody is an expensive cosplay. It is plotted with the passion of a Wikipedia summary article. It hums along inoffensively for 2 hours.
Much of the power, or lack thereof, of A Star Is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody is derived from the framing of their respective concert setpieces. How they’re shot, lit, acted – directed. For example, you go into a superhero movie expecting to be visually and emotionally dazzled by the feats of heroism and bravery, right? You go into either Bohemian Rhapsody or A Star Is Born expecting something substantial from the musical performances. But it’s not just about the music sounding great. They are, after all, films not concerts. Scenes, especially big setpiece kind of scenes, must do more than one thing.
It’s with these scenes where Bohemian Rhapsody superficially delights--and utterly fails. What’s delightful? Rami Malek’s mimicry of Freddie Mercury’s peacock-like movements on stage and the sexually aggressive charisma. It’s a technically proficient recreation of what a Queen concert looked and sounded like, I’d wager.
But it doesn’t reproduce the experience of being a part of Queen--- or a part of the crowd singing along with Queen for that matter. Despite the finest sound design money can buy granting a spiffy new shine to Queens music, despite the accurate performances and the makeup and costuming…it’s only impressive, meaningless visual noise. Unsurprisingly it’s headed by a director whose style can be described as “violent indifference”. Bryan Singer has the camera aimlessly floating around Queen while they perform, as if them just being in frame is enough. It exists in this glossy bubble, and it’s designed to only shimmer and glimmer when we project onto it our personal fondness of the band Queen.
When there is a story angle in these concert scenes, with the film’s eye finally finding an interest in Freddie as he forges a kind of religious connection with the huge crowd, it’s remarkable in as much as Bohemian Rhapsody is finally saying something. But what it’s saying is what you could glean from a YouTube video – that Queen, was indeed, great.
Yeah, great then…
A true little anecdote. Last week I showed a buddy the main song that features in A Star Is Born, Shallow. He must’ve listened to the song at least 12 times before we went to see the actual film. Anyway, some context. Ageing rockstar Jackson invites the promising fresh new talent Ally on stage, for the first time, to perform a song they’ve crafted together: Shallow. This is her moment for the seizing -- what we know she’s wanted more than anything. DP Matthew Libatique captures every glorious nuance of Lady Gaga’s excitement and sheer terror as she takes the plunge that will change her life. She’s dead centre in the shot for at least a full minute. It’s all about the pure excitement of experiencing someone realise their full potential. The stage lights seem to shine just for her.
So yeah, the pleasures of hearing a beloved song was secondary. I know this because when the scene was done my buddy leaned over and said, “I felt so nervous for her during that. My palms were sweaty.” For him, the initial excitement of watching a beloved song playing out on the big screen for the first time immediately gave way to surrendering to the story.
It couldn’t have been more different from the superficial cinematic ethos of Bohemian Rhapsody.
But the storytelling virtues of A Star Is Born direction aren’t contained to one scene. Let’s take Jackson’s solo scenes on stage. As a drugged-out cowboy type, sporting far from the freshest face as one could have, who’s clearly been a rock star for longer than is healthy, his musical scenes take on an entirely different tone, and the cinematic vision changes accordingly. The stage lighting isn’t the lone spotlight as it was for Ally; it’s hostile, harsh and garish, like bursts of liquid electricity. It is entirely sinister, but there is something magnetic about them too. The camera vibrates and shakes in Jackson’s presence, literally looking up to him; it’s reverent, but that reverence is atop an unsteady foundation. It’s a scene full of contradictory emotions and moods. This fading stage is where Jackson belongs, where he’s at his best -- and that it’s what will ultimately damn him.
If these two scenes don’t paint a picture of the pitfalls of fame -- of rise and fall – then, uh, look closer, I guess. I don’t know what to tell ya.
This is a long-winded explanation of why I left Bohemian Rhapsody feeling a little buzzed though underwhelmed and why I left A Star Is Born thoroughly satisfied. Popular films can push two kinds of buttons: the one on the surface and the one embedded deep inside. On an average day the first button is pushed, and maybe you’ll fondly remember a couple of scenes the next day. On a good day, and maybe there aren’t enough of those, you’re left with a private swirl of feelings you can’t so easily shake.