Bohemian Rhapsody: My Favorite Movie of 2018

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I’m just gonna jump right out and say it- Queen is my favorite band of all time. I have yet to encounter a musical group with more perfect vocal harmony, energy, and versatility. No one song sounded the same with Queen, and each piece felt like an evolution of the band’s ideas. The centerpiece of all of this was Freddie Mercury, the iconic frontman with a voice so powerful it could shatter a glass building. Naturally, when I heard that a biopic was being developed based on the band and with a strong focus on Mercury himself, I was beyond excited. What I didn’t anticipate was 2018 being a somewhat slow and disappointing year for movies, at least in my opinion. Luckily, sitting down to watch Bohemian Rhapsody was the cinematic highlight of the year, as not only does the film do justice to the legacy of Freddie Mercury, but it also brings the brilliance of Queen back into the forefront and into the public conversation. It is without a doubt one of my favorite musical biopics of all time, and may even be my favorite if not for the genius of the 1985 Mozart biopic Amadeus.

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Directed by Bryan Singer, the film began with some production troubles. Actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen was originally slated to play Mercury however differences arose between what the surviving members of Queen wanted and what Cohen wanted and as a result, Cohen left the project. I’m not sure how Cohen would have done in the role, however actor Rami Malek does such a phenomenal job as Freddie Mercury that he may as well be a lock for the Best Actor award at the Oscars. Malek simply becomes Mercury in every way, from speech to facial expressions to mannerisms. Malek’s performance is not only the best performance by an actor this year but one of the best in the last decade. The film leads up to the 1985 Live Aid performance, and when comparing actual footage of the performance to the scenes in the film, it’s clear how dedicated the filmmakers were in nailing every aspect of Freddie and the band’s movements, and how well Malek mimics Freddie’s style. Surrounding Malek, however, is a strong supporting cast consisting of the other three members of Queen: guitarist Brian May played by Gwilym Lee, drummer Roger Taylor played by Ben Hardy, and bassist John Deacon played by Joe Mazzello. Mix in a few other good performances by Tom Hollander as the band’s lawyer and Lucy Boynton as Mary Austin, Freddie’s longtime friend, and former wife, and you end up with a not so star-studded cast giving absolutely star-worthy performances. Credit also has to be given for the make-up and costume departments for replicating Freddie’s iconic outfits and recreating the looks of all of the band members. Each actor in the movie looks like a mirror image of their real-life counterparts (Gwilym Lee is nearly indistinguishable from a young Brian May). The core band members themselves have infectious chemistry. There are great moments not only where the band interacts with Freddie, but also where the other band members are interacting with each other.

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Where Bohemian Rhapsody truly shines is in its focus on the most important aspect of Queen and Freddie Mercury, the music. Throughout the film are several scenes showing how some of Queen’s most famous songs came about and who was responsible for composing them. Whether it’s Brian May’s foot stomps for “We Will Rock You”, or John Deacon’s bassline for “Another One Bites the Dust” or the musical ponderings by Freddie that led to the song that inspired the title of the film, there was a lot of insight into the musical process of the band, how they kept innovating, how they worked as a unit, what inspired their music, and of course, how they went about creating the music. Most musical biopics play slight snippets of music but focus more on the personal lives of the musicians whereas, in Bohemian Rhapsody, entire songs of Queen are performed and to great effect. If there were ever a film about a band where the songs should feature heavily, Queen would be the band.

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Films based on true stories often exaggerate and embellish for dramatic effect, and that is still the case with Queen. Without going into what inaccuracies exist within the film, I will say that with whatever liberties were taken, the end result of added drama pays off with the exception of a few key events in the second act. Most of the drama surrounds Freddie’s personal life, and though many have criticized the way Freddie’s life was tackled, I think there was just enough of it that was explored without derailing the film and taking away the importance of the band. There were even some additions like Freddie’s family that helped to tie the film together including a powerful yet subtle moral lesson from Freddie’s father. The exploration of Freddie’s background also helped to give perspective on the struggles and poor influences that Freddie had while also not interfering with the mystique of Mercury. In fact, the entire journey of Freddie’s character in the film only enhances the larger than life persona of Freddie Mercury.

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By the end of this movie, there is a clear message to the audience about the powerful nature of Queen’s music, and the kinship of the four members of Queen that kept them together. This is all related through a beautiful climax that solidifies the legend of Queen and the legendary status of its members. Technically, Bohemian Rhapsody can be thought of as a two-hour advertisement for the band itself, but the subject matter of the film is more than worthy of a little more recognition. Based on the box office results of the film, it’s clear that there are more than a few people who have some love for Queen and their cornucopia of iconic and brilliant songs. So all in all, despite some muddled plot and lack of focus in certain parts of the film, Bohemian Rhapsody succeeds in paying homage to the legacy of Queen thanks in part to the brilliance of Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury, a talented supporting cast, and a dedication to concentrating on the music itself rather than other elements of a more tantalizing and provocative nature that is often explored in other biopics for shock value or intrigue.

Arpeggios and TV Themes: Repetition in Music

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I could make up a clever anecdote about how something interesting sparked my thought process and motivated me to write about this but that just wouldn’t be the truth. I was walking around my college campus earlier when a random thought just popped up in my head: TV show themes copy each other. The Flash TV show theme sounds a lot like The Walking Dead theme, and also a lot like a track I’ve heard from Game of Thrones, and Stranger Things. As a vocal critic/commentator of derivation in pop culture, I spent the extra time I had today listening to and analyzing the structure of the TV melodies that all sounded eerily similar to each other. I’m sure there are movie soundtracks that follow the same pattern I’m about to show you, but since this is such a recurring thing in TV, I thought it would be more interesting to focus on. To make it easier to analyze, I’m transposing all of the arpeggios into the key of C.

The music I found was from The Flash, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, and Westworld. Now, when I say similar, I don’t mean identical (actually two of these are identical). They simply have the same rhythmic and melodic patterns.

To start with, here is The Flash theme:

THE FLASH

The Flash TV theme

Now here is the Walking Dead theme:

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The Walking Dead TV Theme

Sound pretty similar? If you look at the notation, you can see the similar sixteenth note structure. The Flash plays an arpeggiated version of a C natural minor scale, also known as Aeolian mode. Here it is below:

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An Aeolian takes the seven notes of a major scale and flats the 3rd, 6th, and 7th, so it ends up looking like 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7.

The Flash theme plays the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 6th of the scale then back down. So it plays the C, Eb, G, and Ab.

The Walking Dead theme is in a harmonic minor scale, it’s the same thing as a natural minor except it turns the seventh note of the scale back to a natural instead of a flat. So it becomes: 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, 7.

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The Walking Dead theme plays the 1st, 5th, then goes up an octave to play the 2nd and 3rd of the scale. So it plays the C, G, D, Eb, then back down.

Aside from the fact that the rhythm is exactly the same with the three sets of sixteenth notes, both of these themes start and end on the same note and feature a half step movement from 5th to 6th in the flash and from 2nd to b3rd in The Walking Dead.

Next, I want to take a look at “Here Me Roar” from Game of Thrones.

HERE ME ROAR (GAME OF THRONES)

The Flash TV theme

Now for references, here is the sheet music for The Flash theme:

THE FLASH

The Flash TV themeYup, they are exactly the same, note for note, beat for beat. Obviously they vary as each piece plays on but the core idea and the central theme of each piece is identical.

Another TV theme that’s still kind of similar but not as much as the other three above is the Westworld theme. The theme itself is composed by Raman Djawadi, the same composer for Game of Thrones so all of the similarities between the two themes could be a study on its own. Going back to the main ideas though, the Westworld theme also features a few elements that resemble the other TV themes.

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It includes nearly the same successive sixteenth note rhythm, however if you notice the lack of a double line on the last note means the arpeggio ends with an eighth note rather than a sixteenth note. Aside from the rhythm, the theme plays an arpeggio of the harmonic minor scale much like The Walking Dead. In the case of Westworld, it plays the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 8th of the scale. So, it’s not entirely like the other themes, but it is a lot like the next theme below.

 

The Stranger Things theme is the least similar out of all the themes I’ve mentioned because of one simple fact, it’s in major.

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The Stranger Things theme plays the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 8th exactly like the Westworld theme only instead of being in harmonic minor it is a C major scale. The flat 3rd is the only note that changes to make the arpeggio major. Just look at the notation and notice the missing b symbol.

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I guess what I’m trying to say is not that these TV show themes copy each other blatantly, but rather that music in itself is a medium based in repetition. Art is created from inspiration and imitation. Repetition is the key to understanding what makes something truly beautiful. The arpeggios that are used in these themes exemplify the effectiveness of music, and how memorable and powerful pieces can be created by simply rearranging a few notes in a scale. In the rapidly developing medium of television and film, music that matches the intensity of what you see on screen is essential. So, sometimes the music will be similar and have the same notes and chords, but its nothing that hasn’t been happening since the birth of music. The arpeggio motiff in telivision has become a memorable repetition that joins the likes of the minor 2nd and 2-5-1 as elements of music that can be used to bring significance to a piece. These TV themes do sound the same and thats ok, however, I still see it as an interesting thing to point out. It reminds me that music is a complex and ancient art form where patterns of beauty can be found much like a golden ratio or a tesselation.

The Disaster Artist Review (Spoilers!): An Unconventional Inspiration

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The Disaster Artist, directed by James Franco is a funny, dramatic, and oddly inspiring film about the legend behind the greatest worst movie of all time. It manages to strike a balance between an objective retelling of one individual’s crazy life while also managing to be relatable. Based on the making of the 2003 film, The Room, The Disaster Artist follows Greg Sestero, a young actor, as he meets the enigmatic Tommy Wiseau. Wiseau, played brilliantly by James Franco himself, is a cornucopia of mystery. Though he claims to be from New Orleans, he is very clearly of European descent; though he appears to be in his 20’s during the making of the film, he is clearly at least in his 40’s; and to top it all off, he has a “bottomless pit” of cash which was used to fund The Room ($6 million estimated) though no one knows how he got it.

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The film begins with Greg, played by Dave Franco, meeting Tommy at a comedy class where the two strike up an unlikely friendship. Greg asks to “do a scene” with Tommy, leading to a particularly memorable diner scene where Greg shares his fear of getting laughed at by audiences. Tommy bursts Greg’s bubble by having the two of them shout lines from a play in front of the customers in the diner. It’s a hilarious moment that also highlights the necessity to be bold and forthright. Tommy even tells Greg, “Don’t worry about these people! There only you and there only me! “.

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Eventually, Greg moves to Los Angeles with Tommy and they both start their acting careers, which unfortunately doesn’t go well for them. Tommy has a particularly hard time when he confronts a Hollywood producer played by Judd Apatow. The genius of Franco’s performance is that Tommy is portrayed as both sympathetic and unhinged. He acts brazenly and loud in front of the producer, however, you still feel for him when he is insulted and told he will never be successful. When Greg and Tommy decide to make their own movie, it comes off as a statement of resolve and perseverance. Despite what everyone tells Tommy, his determination to express his weird creative persona to the world overpowers the Hollywood system that is rejecting him, and he wouldn’t have been able to do it had he not had Greg along to motivate him. As an audience member, you truly understand the shift in Tommy’s life as he goes from isolated weirdo to aspiring artist with Greg at his side. It should strike a chord with any ambitious artists when Tommy is writing the script for The Room. Despite the fact that you know the end result will be terrible, you can see the determination and hope as he partakes in the creative process.

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Once the filming of The Room begins, the film adjusts to a more objective, behind the scenes, point-of-view second act. It’s clear that Tommy truly doesn’t know what he is doing as he makes ridiculous and costly decisions like shooting the movie in both digital and film, installing his own director’s bathroom on the set, and even recreating a fake alleyway set right next to an actual alleyway in order to have “real Hollywood movie”. Not only is he shown as irresponsible, he is also neurotic and downright vicious at times. He films the cast members secretly and tells the actress playing the female lead role of Lisa that her body is “disgusting”. There are fights with the cast, people passing out from heat exhaustion because Tommy doesn’t pay for A/C, and Greg being forced to pass on career building roles. Eventually, Tommy fires everyone and hires a low budget crew which leads to a falling out between Tommy and Greg. This entire second act reveals a different side of Tommy as the sociopathic, ill-mannered director. You still understand that he is ignorant of the true nature of his actions. You know that he has good intentions yet you are horrified at his behavior. Though this should conflict with the film’s overall message of following your dreams no matter what, it somehow works as a necessary observation on the struggles of trying to execute your vision to perfection, which is yet another part of the creative process.

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The film’s final act culminates in the premiere of The Room at Los Angeles’s Laemmle Theatre. Greg reluctantly agrees to go with Tommy and they arrive in a white limo, greeted by the film’s cast and crew. The reenacted scenes of The Room are uncanny, even though they have been recreated by the new actors, a few scenes feel as if they’ve come straight from the DVD of the original. It’s also heartbreaking to see Tommy realize that everyone is laughing at the film rather than praising it as the dramatic masterpiece that he sees. We get another poignant moment when he leaves the theatre and is convinced by Greg that despite the fact that people didn’t see what he saw in the film, there is no doubt that they have found enjoyment in it and that Tommy has accomplished his goal of making his own movie. The epilogue of the movie describes the continued partnership of Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero and the perpetual success of The Room since its inception.

 

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HOLLYWOOD, CA – NOVEMBER 12: Tommy Wiseau attends the screening of “The Disaster Artist” at AFI FEST 2017 Presented By Audi at TCL Chinese Theatre on November 12, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

One of the main reasons The Disaster Artist works so well as a biographical comedy is the simplicity of its message. Everyone has probably heard the motivational phrases: always following your dreams, don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. The way The Disaster Artist stands out from the rest of the pack is by showing you a real-life example of how these lessons allowed a socially maladjusted person like Tommy Wiseau to become a world-renowned icon. It’s an unconventional story, but you can see how Wiseau was fearless in his pursuit of his goal. The absurdity of Tommy and Greg’s success ignites a spark of hope in all who view this film as a reminder that no matter how bad or how good your own creative ideas are, if you are willing to go the distance and put yourself out there, there is always a chance that your vision will catch on and offer something unique to the world even if the world doesn’t see your vision the same way you do.