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What 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and 'A Star Is Born' get wrong about pop music

Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

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.

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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.

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