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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

A renaissance of songs on screen

Films about musicians and what they do are once again making waves at the box office

Rami Malek in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. 
Rami Malek in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. 

At the time of writing, two of the three most popular movies on listings portal IMDB’s weekly chart had something very striking in common – they both celebrate musicians.

In many ways, Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star is Born – sitting at first and third respectively on the weekly chart, calculated on audience interest – are nothing alike. The first is a Freddie Mercury biopic drawn from the tragedy of real life; the second an escapist, fictional Lady Gaga vehicle. The former is about the larger-than-life character behind the music; the latter a homely tale of has-beens and dropouts finding salvation in sound.

Bohemian Rhapsody was realised after an eight-year production battle, in which numerous directors and stars walked away from the project – including comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, who was initially announced to play Mercury. Clint Eastwood, meanwhile, was originally tipped to direct Beyonce in A Star Is Born, before Bradley Cooper took the reins for his directional debut. This is the fourth big budget remake of a vintage Hollywood hit already more famous for the off-screen stars it’s attracted: Gaga follows Janet Gaynor, Judy ­Garland, Barbara Streisand and Shraddha Kapoor in the lead.

And yet both films have something very important in common – their emotional climaxes come when the characters stop speaking and chewing scenery, and take to the stage – capturing on celluloid the drama, transcendence and euphoric bliss of live music. That’s not so easy to do.

Like boxing bouts and war zones, the concert experience has been notoriously tricky to capture convincingly on film. Both movies achieve their goals in very different, but equally powerful, ways: Bohemian Rhapsody painstakingly recreates Queen’s memorable 1985 appearance at Live Aid, with star Rami Malek reportedly watching YouTube footage more than 1,500 times to copy every thigh slap and pursed lip precisely.

A Star is Born’s wistful crowd scenes meanwhile were taped at actual music festivals – Coachella and Glastonbury – the kind of access that comes only when you have the likes of Cooper and Gaga as your fictional headliners in starring roles.

Capturing the live experience

That both films succeed so well where so many have failed before is as much the result of bigger budgets and technical innovation as it is the tireless dedication of the lead actors.

Better gear might also explain the recent renaissance of that other beleaguered music blockbuster: the live concert movie. With notable exceptions, attempts to recreate the sweaty gig experience in the cinema have proved decidedly patchy affairs.

Yet in recent months two of rock ’n’ roll’s biggest bands revived the concept – with a notable hype-building stunt. It’s not clear whether Coldplay or Muse first had the idea of releasing a live concert movie, simultaneously in cinemas worldwide for just a single day, presumably to recreate the hype of a stadium experience on several continents.

Muse did it first, but worse, with Muse: Drones World Tour, which seamlessly combined swirling aerial footage from four European dates to create what is loftily declared on the official flyer “The Greatest Show on Earth”. The movie was impressive, if overhyped, the 360-degree conceit of the band playing in the arena’s centre making for some inventive camera angles. “Worse”, though, because after the initial one-night run my local cinema kept hosting additional screenings beyond the advertised July 12-only release.

So far, it seems Coldplay’s distributors have done a better job of keeping cinemas in check, with the part-live, part-documentary Coldplay: A Head Full of Dreams screened on, and only on, November 14 (here in Hong Kong at least).

Both films offer a pointed contrast with another new music movie in cinemas this month, Burn the Stage, a traditionally glossy, behind-the-scenes look at K-pop boyband BTS – which enjoys a full dollar-hungry release and is probably so heavily ­sanitised it will serve as little more than propaganda.

Making sense of concert movies

Before Muse and Coldplay’s recent attempts to bring the concert experience to the multiplexes, live concert movies were in the doldrums, widely dismissed as a quaint cultural hangover from the excesses of the 1970s. After hit-and-miss ensemble documents Monterey Pop (1968) and Woodstock (1970), early innovators included Pink Floyd’s impressive Live in Pompeii (1972) – filmed in an empty Roman amphitheatre – and David Bowie’s conceptual Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973). That it took three years for Led Zeppelin’s Madison Square Garden shows from the same year to emerge as the bloated, two-hour-plus The Song Remains the Same (1976) remains a cautionary tale.

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Read more:

Rami Malek on the challenges of playing legendary Queen frontman Freddie Mercury

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga on bringing 'A Star Is Born' to life

BTS film 'Burn the Stage: The Movie' comes to UAE cinemas

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Many will tell you the format peaked with The Last Waltz (1978), a wart-racked, star-studded document of The Band’s farewell concert directed by heavyweight Martin Scorsese. The roll-call of the era’s guest superstars who take turns to appear onstage – Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Neil Diamond among them – secured the film’s renown and legacy, but The Last Waltz remains noteworthy for its distinctly patchy performances.

Young took things towards the sublimely ridiculous with self-directed conceptual concert spectacle Rust Never Sleeps (1979), in which the stage was littered with oversized amplifiers and Star Wars-inspired “Road-Eyes” – later credited by David Byrne as a key influence on Talking Heads’ seminal 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, another regular contender among list-makers for the Best Concert Movie Ever accolade.

This golden era of live music movies trickled out with the growing prevalence of home video, which meant increasingly niche bands could reach their target audiences on VHS without big budgets or clogging up the multiplexes. With a few blockbuster exceptions – Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, Michael Jackson’s final concert rehearsals This Is It – even when concert films make it to cinemas today, they do so at festivals and art houses.

Fact and fiction

Which has left the door open to Hollywood to step in with an increasing relish for depicting fictional, or fictionalised, concert experiences on film – music biopics of the Bohemian Rhapsody mould have become increasingly prevalent in recent years.

A few decades ago, only long-gone legends were deemed worthy of the Hollywood treatment, generally requiring big-name backing to get made – such as Clint Eastwood’s impressionistic Charlie Parker portrait Bird (1988) and Oliver Stone’s widely panned Jim Morrison portrait The Doors (1991).

 Jamie Foxx in ‘Ray’. Shutterstock
 Jamie Foxx in ‘Ray’. Shutterstock

But the genre became a big-dollar proposition following the Oscar-baiting success of Ray (2004), Walk the Line (2005) and La Vie en Rose (2007) – which earned Jamie Foxx a Best Actor trophy for his portrayal of Ray Charles, Joaquin Phoenix a nod for his Johnny Cash in 2005 and Marion Cotillard a Best Actress win for her haunting turn as Edith Piaf. Collectively this trio established the music biopic not just as sure-fire box-office gold, but as a reputation-building necessity for any series actor – which is how we arrive at the point where Leonardo DiCaprio has been in line to play Frank Sinatra.

Recent recommended entries include John Cusack’s washed-up Brian Wilson in Love and Mercy (2014), Ethan Hawke’s dreamy Chet Baker portrait Born to Be Blue, director-star Don Cheadle’s riotous Miles Davis mash-up Miles Ahead and Straight Outta Compton (all 2015) – a blockbuster NWA homage that is currently the all-time most successful music biopic at the box office.

But watch this space – Bohemian Rhapsody is closing in fast.

Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star is Born are in UAE cinemas now