What ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘A Star Is Born’ get wrong about pop music
Accepting the award for original song at Sunday night’s Golden Globes, Lady Gaga paused the thank-yous to set off a little truth bomb about the industry her movie “A Star Is Born” purports to represent.
“I just have to say, as a woman in music, it is really hard to be taken seriously as a musician and as a songwriter,” the pop superstar told the show-business crowd inside the Beverly Hilton. Who could argue with her firsthand knowledge?
These days, Gaga is widely respected as the author of her own work. “Shallow,” the yearning power ballad that won the Golden Globe, will extend its awards-season run at next month’s Grammys, where it’s nominated for both record and song of the year — prizes that honor her singing as well as her behind-the-scenes effort as a writer and producer.
But for years after she broke out in 2008 with “Just Dance,” Gaga was written off, like countless female artists before her, as little more than a manufactured product, one whose talent lay in her outrageous outfits, not her meticulous songcraft.
So I just have to say, as a pop critic who loves a lot about “A Star Is Born,” it’s really disappointing to find how much old-fashioned thinking persists in this movie. Hollywood in 2018 elevated the music business to a starring role, and this winter three music-centered films — “A Star Is Born,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Vox Lux” — are vying for critical, commercial and awards recognition.
But to varying degrees each recycles hoary notions of authenticity in depicting the music scene as a place defined from the top down by compromise and artificiality. Gaga’s character, Ally, has to reject her taste for spectacle (following the tragic death of her husband) to realize her artistic potential.
In “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the Freddie Mercury biopic unexpectedly named best dramatic picture at the Globes, the Queen frontman (played by Rami Malek) keeps coming up against a cartoonish record executive who scoffs at his ambition. And Mercury’s struggles as a gay brown man in a straight white world? Glossed over as a narrative inconvenience rather than presented as part of what propelled him to the stage.
Then there’s “Vox Lux,” in which Natalie Portman plays a singer whose experiences have caused her to abandon any hope of making her audience think.
“I just want them to feel good,” she says, as though the two goals are incompatible. Her life spirals — drugs, paparazzi, her neglect of her daughter — and we’re expected to file her away as another victim of the pop machinery.
I’m not here to argue that the music business isn’t a cesspool. If you’ve watched even a few minutes of Lifetime’s new “Surviving R. Kelly” docuseries, then you know that’s exactly what it can be. Nor am I saying these movies don’t get some things right, such as the pitch-perfect detailing at a fictional Grammys ceremony in “A Star Is Born” (complete with Brandi Carlile as a performer) or the slick textures and whooshing beats of the songs Sia wrote for “Vox Lux.”
But what’s vexing about them, at least to those of us who interact with music as more than a thrill ride, is their contention that the industrialized pop process can’t lead to great art — that beauty or profundity is accessible only to an artist sitting around with an acoustic guitar or in a grimy parking lot with less than that.
The latter scenario is the one “A Star Is Born” uses to dramatize the creation of “Shallow,” which we’re asked to believe Ally brings into the world a cappella off the top of her head as she and Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) hang out in front of a grocery store.
Lady Gaga reveals her songwriting skills to Bradley Cooper in “A Star is Born.”
In reality, though, “Shallow” — which, to be clear, is both beautiful and profound! — was written by Gaga along with three other professional songwriters; indeed, “A Star Is Born” draws on the expertise of an expansive team of insiders (including Mark Ronson, Julia Michaels and Diane Warren), many of whom made their names with precisely the type of shiny pop tunes the film goes on to present as evidence of Ally’s having sold out.
In other words, the movie wants us to buy the idea that music made by committee, or music designed specifically to reach a mass audience, necessarily lacks soul. But what “A Star Is Born” is actually selling — moving songs written to order by experienced pros — refutes that premise.
Not only that, but as a story the film relies almost entirely on Lady Gaga’s remarkable performance, in which she deploys all the expressive skills she honed over a decade as one of the world’s most famous singers (even, or especially, when she’s portraying a moment of unguarded intimacy).
Considering how good she is here, you’d think that Cooper, who directed and co-wrote the script, would have realized at some point that the real-life Gaga was probably being underestimated at the beginning of her career.
Yet “A Star Is Born” puts across the same dismissive attitude that greeted “Just Dance”; it insists that Ally will lose a game that Lady Gaga has already won.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is less suspicious of an artist’s desire to please a crowd. But like “A Star Is Born” it suggests that true inspiration comes not from engaging with the world but by hiding from it — as in a laughably naive sequence in which the members of Queen cloister themselves in a remote recording studio, determined to “get experimental,” as guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) puts it.
For the version of the band represented here, the commercial instinct (as embodied by that craven exec) is something to fight against.
Yet what set the proudly eclectic Queen apart from other, more boring ’70s-era rock bands was Mercury’s understanding that proven formulas, from rockabilly to opera to disco, have lasting creative value; they can usher listeners into a psychic space where a singer can relate the particulars of his or her life.
That “Bohemian Rhapsody” crudely streamlines much of Mercury’s complicated existence only demonstrates the filmmakers’ apparent belief that audiences are no more capable of nuanced thought than they were 40 years ago.
As childish as the movie feels to me, there’s no denying that “Bohemian Rhapsody” has connected with audiences; Box Office Mojo says the film has made nearly $200 million in the United States alone, and Sunday’s Golden Globes upset (along with an acting trophy for Malek) could mean it has a fighting chance at the Oscars.
Maybe these films, in which real artistes must battle cynical businessmen, are simply looking to satisfy viewers’ hankering for good guys vs. bad guys — a rivalry easier to depict, anyway, than the ineffable struggle to pull a song out of thin air.
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