There’s a fun experiment that takes place after every year’s Oscars, where some of us, now able to easily rent these Oscar-nominated films through Redbox or seek them out on streaming platforms, think, “Well, let’s see what that was all about.”
So it made sense last weekend to not only to catch up a little bit, but to knock out two music-heavy movies together. While there are definitely differences between the two, I’m going to focus on one thing: the cinematography. And more specifically, how the cinematography gives you each movie’s mission statement, one shot at a time.
If you didn’t know Bohemian Rhapsody is about Queen, you might be fooled into thinking it’s another superhero origin story. All the shots are brightly lit and move in very, very slick ways. So slick, in fact, that you can see some serious trickery went into making the camera appear far more capable and smooth than it has any right to be. There’s a great deal of costumes meant to be retro but are rather expensive, excessively clean reproductions of the same thing. There are lots of wigs, too. Questionable ones at that.
So would it surprise you if you I told you Bohemian Rhapsody’s cinematographer, Newton Thomas Siegel, has worked with director Bryan Singer on all of his X-Men movies, including his Superman Returns? (that’s 5 big-budget superhero movies). He’s using his same slick, well-lit skillset from the superhero movies to bring the story of Queen to life.
A Star is Born, on the other hand, shows the signs of a craftsman who’s worked with Darren Aronofsky, Jon Favreau, and Spike Lee alike. Matthew Libatique has always been an excellent talent who can do just about any genre. Here, he works with director Bradley Cooper to make some quite effective decisions. All the concert and music footage is filmed at the eye level of those on the stage. In fact, Libatique said they would shoot their music scenes as dialogue scenes. This makes total sense when you see just how intimate everything feels. The close-ups that capture the glances. The emotions worn deep and under bright light.
What I couldn’t get over with A Star is Born is just how crisp and detailed the low-light shots were. There’s always some kind of light – be it a stage light, a sun, or something other – fighting to break its way into the darker areas of shots. And even then, we see our characters in stark clarity. It’s an apt metaphor: a movie this focused on two people struggling to pull each other up is bound to be so clear in low light.
Bohemian Rhapsody can’t seem to decide at times what kind of movie it wants to be, so it does a little bit of everything. It touches briefly on singer Freddie Mercury’s life and choices, but it’s so quick as to barely register. Even the supposed animosity between Mercury and the rest of the band is manufactured. Everything about this movie, not unlike your average superhero movie, is designed to entertain. It doesn’t want to go to deep. It just wants to rock you.
You can’t go wrong with a soundtrack packed with Queen songs (and the Oscars for Sound Mixing/Editing are arguably deserved for who well they weave in the entire Queen catalog with bits of dialogue), but A Star is Born is absolutely no slouch. Everyone loves to talk about the breakout hit, ‘Shallow’, but I found “I’ll Always Remember You This Way” to be my favorite. It’s pretty clear how hard everyone – Lady Gaga, Cooper, Diane Warren, Lukas Nelson and his band – worked together to create something memorable, and something memorable they have absolutely achieved.
But it all comes back to the light. You can see it in the shot selection and the way the camera moves. One film is a superhero movie with heavy bass instead of groan-worthy punches and high notes instead of explosions. It’s smooth, fast-paced, and always glossy.
The other is a genuine attempt at depicting a man trying to rediscover his place in the world while the woman he loves is slowly creating hers. It plays with contrast and color. It shows us clear emotions and faces in messy light. It rocks us all the same, but in a different, deeper way that persists long after the lights go down.