Oscars 2019: A Star Is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody are musicals with refreshingly different narrative techniques

While A Star Is Born is a rare intimately shot concert film with abundant close-up shots, Bohemian Rhapsody is an event musical with a fresh democratic approach.

Devansh Sharma February 21, 2019 08:18:42 IST
Oscars 2019: A Star Is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody are musicals with refreshingly different narrative techniques

Days after relegating the presentation of some major technical awards to the commercials, the Academy withdrew its decision in response to backlash from Hollywood and social media. It is undoubtedly a welcome move, more so because technical aspects like cinematography and editing have enriched the Best Picture nominations of this year and have taken their appeal several notches higher.

These two aspects, editing and cinematography, along with the screenplay, have also made the narrative techniques of two musicals (nominated for Best Picture) very different from each other. While A Star Is Born is a rare intimately-shot concert film, the gig sequences of Bohemian Rhapsody play out like an event, celebrating the legacy of iconic personalities. While both are films about music, the way the camerawork and the editing treat them adds unique elements to them.

Oscars 2019 A Star Is Born Bohemian Rhapsody are musicals with refreshingly different narrative techniques

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in a still from 'Shallow'

A Star Is Born is a remake of a timeless classic about love, fame, music and passion. However, Cooper ensures that it is not shot like an old school musical. With the theme of love embedded in music, it could have easily gone the La La Land way. But its innovative treatment does not allow A Star Is Born that convenience.

Barring the opening sequence, all the concert scenes of A Star Is Born are full of Mid Close-Up (MCU) shots of Gaga and Cooper. The opening sequence, 'Black Eyes', introduces Cooper as an established performer and thus, the camera often pans on the audience to record them cheering on Cooper. There are barely any MCUs of Cooper and those that are, don't capture his face as it is always covered by unkempt hair. His face, or his true identity, is not of much significance in the opening bits as the idea till then is to establish that he is yet another popular, intoxicated (both literally and metaphorically) singer.

But when Gaga enters, the MCUs take over. As Cooper sings 'Maybe It's Time', the camera measures his face, smile and the eyes that find a soulful connect with Gaga. Cooper urges Gaga to take to the stage as well, but she argues that she has been told that she does not have the right 'nose' to become a stage performer. The 'nose' here is a symbol of the ego or insecurity that prevents a closet artist from breaking out. Later, as 'Shallow' unfurls, Gaga is prompted to see beyond her nose as she takes to the mic with Cooper. The camera, throughout that song, focuses only on Gaga's, and occasionally Cooper's face.

Rarely does the camera pan on the audience here. The same is the case with 'Always Remember Us This Way'. The camera captures every strained vein in Gaga's throat as she powers through the piano piece. With the camera fixated on her upper body, the force in her voice is made as palpable as the disbelief on her face in 'Shallow'. The audience can be seen in the background. The exclamation point of the film, however, is the climactic 'I'll Never Love Again'. The camera rises to the occasion and tilts upward to Gaga's face. While the stakes are high, the crowd is still not visible because of the excessive spotlight on Gaga. She is given the proper star treatment and that is crystallised with the close-up on her eyes in the last shot of the film. Full of pain and abandon, Gaga's eyes declare that 'A star is born'. No wonder that Cooper's film is also nominated for Best Cinematography.

Oscars 2019 A Star Is Born Bohemian Rhapsody are musicals with refreshingly different narrative techniques

Lady Gaga in a still from A Star Is Born

Bohemian Rhapsody, on the other hand, has limited close-up shots. The most noticeable are on Rami Malek's face as he passionately croons 'Bohemian Rhapsody' in the climactic Live Aid concert. The intensity on Freddie Mercury's instantly recognisable face is awe-inspiring, also thanks to the phenomenal performance by Rami Malek. But the camera generously captures Malek's surroundings as well. The brand of Freddie Mercury was a product of not just that face but also his mannerisms and quirky moves. It also constituted his partnership with the other members of Queen and the gigantic fan base that he commanded. The screenplay gives equal space to all these elements, and that has probably landed the film a Best Editing nomination.

Besides being a concert film, Bohemian Rhapsody has another aspect in common with A Star Is Born. Like Gaga's character, Freddie and his band members were also self-proclaimed outcasts. While Gaga's proclamation stemmed from doubt about her appearance, Queen was proud of their unconventional appearances and inspired many to embrace their inadequacies. As the buck-toothed Freddie declared in the film, "We’re four misfits who don’t belong together, playing for other misfits and the outcasts right in the back of the room, who are pretty sure they don’t belong either… we belong to them."

Oscars 2019 A Star Is Born Bohemian Rhapsody are musicals with refreshingly different narrative techniques

A still from Bohemian Rhapsody

This sense of belonging was captured fairly well in the concert sequences of the film, through the camera and the editing. The lyrics of Queen's watershed songs dominated the screen in karaoke style as the tracks played out in the film.

A Star Is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody are starkly different in the way their musical sequences are shot. Personally, I enjoyed my heart out singing with Freddie in Bohemian Rhapsody, but I felt I was as much a part of Gaga and Cooper's heart-wrenching songs because of the intimacy involved in every frame. Bohemian Rhapsody arguably could not have gone the same way because it had a larger-than-life figure to marvel, but it could have taken a cue from Damien Chazelle's groundbreaking biopic of Neil Armstrong, First Man. Naturally, Armstrong was no performer but the way the camera observes him from close quarters, it makes the audience more invested in the man that he was rather than the 'space' that he inhabited and conquered, pun intended.

All images from YouTube.

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