Will A Star is Born or Bohemian Rhapsody bite the dust in a one-on-one comparison for better musical?

Hollywood loves trends. At this moment, the trend is musicals. We have seen an influx in musicals and music themed films over the last two years. Without counting Disney’s musicals (Tangled, Frozen, Moana, Beauty and the Beast) as they’ve been doing them for years, La La Land (2016), The Greatest Showman (2017) and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018) all made around $400 million worldwide at the box office. These types of movies draw large crowds, multiple demographics and actor interest (as seen in their ensemble casts), but what people may not think about is their performance on the Billboard Charts. The Greatest Showman soundtrack has been in The Billboard 200 Chart’s Top 10 for a nonconsecutive 30 weeks since its debut in December 2017. That’s 10 months after film’s initial release date. Musicals make money at the box office, and make a killing in their soundtrack numbers. Because of successes like these, we’re getting Mary Poppins Returns later this year, Elton John’s Rocketman, an Amy Winehouse biopic, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights (in which the studio rights sold for a whopping $50 million dollars), a Cats adaptation and not to mention all the live action remakes Disney is putting out of their classics, all within the next two or so years. With all these musicals coming out, what route is Hollywood taking? Are they going to be great films first that blend the music well in their story telling? Or semi-cash cows where the music is at least great, but the actual film lacks? Or maybe there’s a nice middle ground. Let’s compare two of the latest musicals this year to gauge an idea of what’s coming: A Star is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody.

A Star is Born sees Bradley Cooper take the helm as director and stars alongside Lady Gaga in the remake of the classic tale. Old and fading rockstar Jackson Maine (Cooper) helps an up and coming singer Ally (Gaga) achieve fame and in the process, fall in love. However as one gains fame, the other declines as we see how this takes a toll on their relationship. In the other corner of the ring is Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic of Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek). Known for his flamboyant and outlandish lifestyle, we see how Mercury’s unique fingerprint impacted their fame in and outside the limelight. In the comparison, we’ll briefly discuss each film within a category of what I think makes both a musical and film great to see which film earns the most coveted points. We’ll start off simple then dive more disective. Maybe think of this also as a mini review for the two films. Now let’s see which film bites the dust.


Directing Style

A Star is Born: Bradley Cooper | Bohemian Rhapsody: Bryan Singer

For a first time director, Bradley Cooper shows off a true style in his debut. He’s patient with the camera. He holds his shots, has an acute understanding of framing and when it comes to the music scenes, it roars.

Shrouded in on-set drama, Bryan Singer shows Queen in a bright light (before he got fired and replaced by Dexter Fletcher) but they never leap off the screen. This larger than life band is for the most part shown flat and a lot of missed opportunities. As Mercury owns the screen in movements, the camera fails to reciprocate the gesture.

Cooper’s directing is personal and deliberate, Singer phones it in showing no distinct style.

ASIB 1 : BR 0


Lead Performances

Lady Gaga | Rami Malek
Lady Gaga proves she has some acting chops. We already know she is a great music performer, but with only hints of her acting abilities in American Horror Story, this cements she’s going to add acting star on her resume. She is bold, fearless and plays off Cooper (who is probably equal lead) so well she outshines him. Let’s be honest however, her character of Ally is very close to herself, with her Gaga-isms poking through. There is even a scene where she talks about her nose in which I am very sure concerned to her in her early Gaga days.

Rami Malek on the other hand disappears into Freddie Mercury. He commands the screen with a palpable presence. He moves like Freddie, talks like him and when he dawns the 50+ costumes, you’d swear he is Freddie. There’s no underestimating the training and dedication Malek put into becoming Mercury and it truly shows. He is the anchor for the film and without him this movie would have fallen apart.

Both fantastic performances but Malek probably just edges out Gaga.

ASIB 1 : BR 1


Musical sequences
ASIB: “Shallows”, “I’ll Never Love Again”: | BR: “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “1985 Live Aid Performance”

There is something so gleeful when you see Queen record Bohemian Rhapsody. The trials, tribulations and knowing they’re making music history, knowing the song with the most doubts will be remembered as their best, it’s a sequence where you’re smiling all the way through. But within the film, it’s only bits and pieces we see. Compare this to the Live Aid Performance, shown in its entirety. The whole Queen melody will make you want to stand up and cheer. But, as previously mentioned in the directing style portion, it never fully comes alive. Sure, it makes me want to get up and dance, but so does the archive footage on YouTube. It doesn’t do anything different. It takes one advantage of the medium by showing the vastness of the crowd, but that’s it. No sweeping shots of Queen, no fast and rhythmic editing. It’s just “Here you go, here is the performance”.

A Star is Born builds it’s sequence for Shallows like a gradual crescendo. We get little tidbits of the song Gaga’s character has been working on, then a few minutes later we see it come to fruition. It’s not just a music scene for the sake of having one, it’s a character changing moment in the film. Ally for the first time breaks through her nervous barrier because Cooper’s character gives her the courage and trust to do so. Once she hits the spotlight, her spotty hesitation soon disappears and she belts out the most heart pounding duet. This scene is shown mainly in close-up of Gaga’s face and unlike BR’s reliance on spectacle, it’s a personal and character moment. To top it all off, her solo performance of I’ll Never Love Again caps off an emotional arc for her character, filled with both trauma and joyous reminiscence. Showcased is Gaga’s sheer resilience and power when singing, we feel each high and low note Ally is thinking about.

While BR relies spectacle with a dash of nostalgia, ASIB shows restraint, with focus and attention to why these musical sequences mean so much to the characters and the narrative.

ASIB 2: BR 1


Songs

Jackson Maine & Ally | Queen

Queen wins moving on.

Just kidding, but you could make a perfectly solid case. Think about the social conscience of music. Queen is always and probably forever will be talked about amongst the greats that shaped Rock and Roll with their own unique flare. The list goes on with the aforementioned magnum opus that is Bohemian Rhapsody. A medley of soul, rock and opera. A 6 minute masterpiece that compares to nothing that has come since. It’s topped off that the lyrics are sweepingly poetic and poignant. And the list continues with Another One Bites The Dust, Under Pressure, We Will Rock You, We Are The Champions, do I need to continue? With all these amazing and timeless songs, it’s almost cherry picked though. The best of the best. But where is Flash? Bicycle Race? Good Old Fashioned Loverboy? It is a very small nitpick as I don’t expect a movie to show a complete discography, but those are some great songs! I’m not going to dispute that Queen’s songs aren’t great, because they are. But have we not heard them millions of times over before?

A Star is Born is a completely original soundtrack. A mix of pop and soft country. We have Gaga at the forefront lending her established vocals but is extremely understated is Bradley Cooper’s ability to actually sing surprisingly well. He masters the husk and rugged tone of a rockstar, with Gaga’s incredible vocal range complementing. Their duets are riveting, with Gaga’s solo songs rivaling her pop career hits for her best work. It’s like a soft entrance into country rock with a few beautiful ballads thrown in. Highlights include Maybe It’s Time, Shallows, Alibi and I’ll Never Love Again. There’s even a really Gaga-esque song Why Did You Do That? Which sounds like it could have come from her 2013-era career. But it’s just too early to see if these songs have the timelessness of Queen.

Queen’s music and Freddie’s vocals are a large partial reason why his biopic was made in the first place.

ASIB 2: BR 2


Subject Matter and Thematic Resonance

This will be our last category. Both films are about the rockstar lifestyle, how they take a toll on our leads and how it affects the relationships around them, be it family or lovers.

Freddie Mercury’s lifestyle added to his mythical status. His immense talent came second in his private life. The fluidity of his sexuality, his drug addiction, the insane parties he had thrown. Mercury had two different lives, his stage life and his life behind the curtains. BR unfortunately does not show a lot of his secret life in favour for a cookie cutter, run through of Queen’s greatest hits. Their aim was to show a PG representation of who Freddie was. They get the on stage representation down to a tee, but behind the scenes we don’t see anything that made his life of secrecy so intriguing. There is no nuance to his loneliness, his constant feuding with Queen or his drug addiction (there is literally only one or two scenes where he is supposedly high). We know where Mercury’s arc is headed, because it’s telegraphed from a mile away. You can’t normally knock on a film’s narrative when it’s history, we know he gets back with Queen. But you can see the grubby fingerprints of producers and living Queen members forcing the movie to say “Freddie needed Queen as much as Queen needed him”, which I am sure is somewhat factual, but is this a Freddie Mercury biopic or a Queen music video? Let’s put it like this, if Freddie Mercury saw this movie, I think he’d have a few things to say about what was missing. This film doesn’t challenge anything we already know about Mercury. And even Queen’s greatest hits can’t seem to find thematic resonance. Bohemian Rhapsody proves their worth as a band, but that’s it. After that it’s just a Jukebox on shuffle.

A Star is Born details the hardships and downfall of the rockstar lifestyle so well, you swore you were reading a diary. It’s private, up close and does not hold back. Cooper’s fading rockstar tackles drugs, alcoholism and the strain he feels from his brother. The love he gets from Ally pulls him through yet it somehow is never perfect. It chronicles a love story with nuance and sincerity all while subtly leaving hints of the conflict they will face with each other’s careers. It showcases adoration, commitment and sacrifice from both sides. In a film with two equal leads, there is no favoured star. As he falls, she rises and this toxic dynamic of jealousy and disappointment fuels their clashing paths. Each character is perfectly balanced with Ally’s determination and courage paralleled (in a crooked sense) Maine’s fall from grace. And how is this telegraphed? Not only by the on screen chemistry, but the lyrics within the music they perform. The songs are weaved within the narrative. When there is brewing love, they sing a duet. When they’re on the rocks, they each have their solo songs. When tragedy strikes there is a mournful ballad. We have barely even mentioned Sam Elliott’s character who struggles with the shadow of his brother and the responsibility he feels the recklessness Maine causes. The film is so thematically deep and complex that the music is just a cherry on top.

I think it’s quite obvious who gets this point.

ASIB 3 : BR 2


Final Thoughts

This is by no means a scientific study. This is simply one critics opinion. A Star is Born triumphs over Bohemian Rhapsody through Cooper’s style and use of complex themes to underlie musical sequences. This is not to say Bohemian Rhapsody is a bad film, it does exactly what it sets out to do: a fun Jukebox musical about Queen to make you cheer when Freddie Mercury is on screen. And that’s perfectly fine. But if we are getting a whole heap of musicals within the next few years (like how Steven Spielberg wants to remake The Colour Purple into a musical), I hope they take notes from A Star is Born. I want these new wave of musicals to have purpose, to make character driven choices, to use the diegetic music towards their narrative. However I am neither opposed to having a rockout flick where I can dance in the cinema and take off my critic hat for a head banger. Maybe one of the upcoming films I mentioned earlier will make me do both.

Thomas Tang