Cautionary rock tales on film: A Star is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody

Musical biopics and stories about celebrity are such predictable genres that 2007’s parody Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story was almost anticlimactic in its fusion of clichés. Almost anyone who has seen more than one film in these genres can trace their narrative arcs. They are typically cautionary tales that encourages us to root for underdogs and luxuriate in their stardom while admonishing us to be mindful of the dark forces endemic to celebrity. Few films in either genre transcend this push-pull narrative approach which usually makes performances their saving grace. Jamie Foxx’s performance as Ray Charles (Ray) and Jennifer Hudson’s as Effie White (Dreamgirls) are sterling examples of this phenomenon.

 

For some these films are a kind of cinematic comfort food; for others, they are frustratingly formulaic. The Bradley Cooper directed version of A Star is Born is the fourth version of a story told onscreen in 1937, 1954 and 1976. Because of this the test of its mettle is not necessarily plot but performance and tone. What is different in the 21st century that warrants another retelling? The Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody has a different mission, notably to narrativize the life Freddie Mercury, one of rock’s most dynamic figures in a way that enriches our understanding of him as an individual and as the primary face of arena rock’s most eclectic band, Queen. They are both highly watchable films limited by the genres they represent and the modest aspirations of their directors. How do they fare? Check out my thoughts below:

 

 Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga make music together in 2018’s remake of  A Star is Born .

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga make music together in 2018’s remake of A Star is Born.

A Star is Born

 

Before the global film industry drew a wedge between mainstream and independent films, by demarcating the mainstream as a domain for teenagers (mostly) and more independent circuits for mature audiences (mostly), dramas of multiple varieties (e.g., romantic, melo, epic) were a staple in mainstream movies. Contemporarily, the lack of mainstream adult fare makes a film like A Star is Born standout. Conceptually, the film makes perfect Hollywood sense: Pair a successful pop singer, seeking to branch out artistically, with a talented actor, looking to gain credibility as a filmmaker, and you have not only a film but a mashup that has spawned a hit soundtrack, a celebrity power couple and juicy awards show fodder.

 

The story is skeletal: a grizzled, pill-popping, alcoholic rock veteran (Jackson Maine) stumbles onto a gifted singer/songwriter (Ally)who waitresses by day and performs by night. After seeing her do a might impressive Edith Piaf impression in a New York City drag bar he’s smitten. They click artistically, they bond emotionally and a magical concert duet, captured virally, thrusts her into the national spotlight. He supports her sudden ascent to major record label status but also feels overshadowed by it. As he deteriorates, he watches the star machine begin to taint her “authenticity” and confronts her about it. She persists and after he embarrasses her publicly in grand fashion, she motivates him to seek out the help he needs. But, its ultimately too late; her ascent signifies a changing of the guard that he cannot endure.

 

This is a performance driven film and in that it succeeds. Lady Gaga is believable as an independent hardscrabble singer accustomed to handling different kinds of men, ranging from her wannabe crooner father to her overbearing boss. Her singing is gorgeous throughout, even if some of the songs are not that memorable, and she is a fine sparring partner with Cooper. She is far less self-conscious and more natural than many of the pop singer-turned-actresses before her, including Madonna, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Her deep roots as a chameleonic performer serve her well. Her transition from an unknown to a celebrity is convincing, as is her chemistry with Cooper. They achieve some genuine moments of intimacy, especially when they have time to share songs and express their craft.

 

Cooper is also at his best—he’s traditionally masculine, but also tender and sympathetic, even when his addictions and insecurities get the best of him. Timewise, the kind of pseudo country rock/arena rock he plays throughout the movie seems a few generations removed, even for an aging performer. I never quite bought the youth of his audience. But he sings and plays with enough conviction to not distract you, though at times he seems to channel Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart.

 

As a film, the story ticks along smoothly and is highly watchable, if familiar. Cooper’s triumph as a director is knowing when to pause and when to move us through the action. His ability to let the audience witness the budding tension between himself and Gaga is refreshing in the age of CGI. The final third of the movie is episodic and predictable. Though it clearly is building toward a foreseeable ending its rhythm feels forced moving both too quickly to wrap things up and still seeming to drag out the inevitable.  As a director, Cooper chooses inference over heavy handedness, which helps make the ending tolerable. It is an appropriately big moment for Lady Gaga who nails the finale with finesse and conviction.

 

A Star is Born is one of the more ambitious mainstream films I have seen in years in terms of the emotional terrain it aspires to cover. It’s a love story, a comment on celebrity, a concert film, a family saga, and a cautionary tale, among others. The film cannot bear the weight of all of these in its two hour and 14-minute playing time and is limited by its conservative storyline and thematic obviousness.  It is a modest triumph of craft more than innovation. Despite all the obvious talent on display it never illuminates why this story needs to be retold.

 

 Rami Malek delivers a star-making performance as Freddie Mercury in the 2018 Queen biopic  Bohemian Rhapsody .

Rami Malek delivers a star-making performance as Freddie Mercury in the 2018 Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.

Bohemian Rhapsody

 

The genius of Queen’s pseudo-operatic 1977 ballad “Bohemian Rhapsody” is its focused excess. Despite the over the top nature of everything associated with it—those voices! those lyrics! that falsetto! —there is a meticulous intricacy to each of its components making it epic yet intimate. The new biopic on Queen should have taken a cue from its namesake.

 

People seeking a through overview of Queen should read some of the better books about the band such as Mark Blake’s excellent 2011 biography Is This the Real Life? The Untold Story of Queen. A two-hour film is too modest a format to hint at the full grandeur of the band. As such, the filmmakers have made a hybrid that chronicles select moments in Freddie Mercury’s life, mixes it with highly staged scenes of the band creating their art and performing, and throws in moments aiming to expose the machinations of the commercial recording industry.

 

Bohemian Rhapsody’s main attraction is its platform for actor Rami Malek whose performance as Mercury is so indelible it’s difficult to imagine any other actor pulling it off. Malek captures the lithe, feline-like quality of Mercury onstage and off as someone who knew how to manage any situation with wit, style and attitude. Whether this is objectively true of Mercury is beside the point. The film’s evasions of certain facts never get in the way of Malek’s performance of the character the screenplay constructs. Much like Diana Ross’s celebrated performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, Malek captures the emotional essence of a highly public musician, facts be damned. This is expert scenery chewing, conveyed with charm and conviction.

 

The film tries to cover so much about Queen’s rise from the early 1970s to mid-1980s period that you leave knowing you saw and heard a lot but emerge with no real insights. The way the film bounces through time, using montages, for example, sacrifices intimacy for an unsatisfying comprehensiveness. The band’s lead guitarist Brian May was involved with the production which may explain why the film attempts to convey the highly collaborative nature of the band as more than just a Freddie Mercury showcase. The screenplay still presents them flatly as likable journeymen who propelled Mercury’s vision. Their personalities and contributions remain elusive.

 

Further, the film delves into a lot of clichés about celebrity indulgence, through Mercury, but never explores his bandmates’ exploits including their dalliances with groupies and marital issues. He instead becomes the cautionary tale about the way money and fame are corrupting forces. Beyond his material possessions and drug use, the film treats his queer sexuality as a symptom of indulgence, even if unintentionally. Mercury was never “out” in traditional terms to his audience which was understandable given the demographics of arena rock. While the film presents his relationship to his longtime friend and companion Mary Austin respectfully, it never explores his own struggles with his sexuality or his navigation of the macho rock world. By presenting his sexuality through side glances, then showing his tentative effort to establish a relationship with Jim Hutton (who he lived with from the mid-1980s until his death), and then fast forwarding to his HIV diagnosis, the film cheats him of complexity. He becomes another victim with little exploration of what it was like for him, especially considering the cultural paranoia about HIV/AIDS at the time.

 

Had the film focused on the lesser known parts of the band’s storied (?) history we could have had a more intimate glance at an exciting manner of dynamics. Mercury’s navigations of the closet and his HIV positive status is one example. Another one: Mike Myers is delightfully cast as sleezy commercial minded record executive Ray Foster who focuses on what the radio will already play rather than trying to expand its parameters. Pop music’s transition from rigid formulas to more experimental sounds is an interesting phase of rock the film never explores, though Queen’s defiance of clichés would make it an ideal band for this type of exploration. Few rock-oriented bands of their time could cover as vast a range as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Somebody to Love,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “We Will Rock You” and “I Want to Break Free.” Queen offers a different kind of listening pleasure than Styx or Kansas or The Moody Blues. Their uniqueness deserves a film of similar stature.

 

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