Mu­sic for Screens

Pros taught Malek to rock, Ali to play pi­ano and Cooper to shred on gui­tar

Variety - - Contents - By ROY TRAKIN

In­dus­try pros helped ac­tors learn to play in­stru­ments

More than a half- cen­tury ago, there was a pub­lic out­cry when Marni Nixon’s singing voice was dubbed for Au­drey Hep­burn’s in Ge­orge Cukor’s 1964 “My Fair Lady” film, in lieu of cast­ing a pow­er­house singer-ac­tress such as Julie An­drews, the orig­i­na­tor of the role on Broad­way. These days, film and mu­sic fans have largely come to terms with mu­si­cal num­bers in­volv­ing an un­seen ringer, es­pe­cially when it comes to hand-synch­ing, still a more eas­ily for­giv­able prac­tice than vo­cal mim­ing.

So it’s not sur­pris­ing to learn that nei­ther “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” star Rami Malek nor “Green Book” lead Ma­her­shala Ali could play a note be­fore tack­ling their roles as real-life key­board prodi­gies Fred­die Mer­cury and Dr. Don Shirley. Or that those crack­ling gui­tar riffs churned out by “A Star Is Born” au­teur Bradley Cooper as griz­zled rocker Jack­son Maine came from the fingers and frets of Lukas Nel­son, son of coun­try icon Wil­lie and leader of the back-up band in the movie.

For mu­sic-based movies like these three Os­car hope­fuls, be­hind-the-scenes dou­bles be­come in­creas­ingly cru­cial as the per­for­mances strive for au­then­tic­ity, so that Cooper looks cred­i­ble shred­ding on his Strat, while Malek and Ali con­vey the seem­ing ef­fort­less­ness of be­ing pi­ano vir­tu­osos. And then there’s the “move­ment coach” who helped Malek in­habit the body and spirit (if not the voice) of the flam­boy­ant Queen front­man.


Bradley Cooper de­cided to use Wil­lie’s son (who turned 30 on Christ­mas Day) af­ter see­ing him and his band Prom­ise of the Real ac­com- pany Neil Young at a con­cert. Pro­ducer Bill Ger­ber knew the Nel­sons since Wil­lie ap­peared on episodes of his 1980s show “The Dukes of Haz­zard” and put Cooper and the younger Nel­son to­gether.

“We met at Bradley’s house and I could tell he loved Neil, which was a great start,” says Nel­son laugh­ing. “I found out very quickly he was a hard worker and very pas­sion­ate in ap­proach­ing his art, which is some­thing we con­nected on.”

Cooper showed Nel­son a clip on his iphone of him singing “Mid­night Spe­cial” on the pi­ano with Gaga. “I no­ticed he hit all the notes and had a dis­tinct char­ac­ter in his voice, and that we could de­velop that in the man­ner of Kris Kristof­fer­son,” says the singer-gui­tarist. “A great deal of the vo­cals in the film were done live, and he just nailed it. There was some coach­ing in­volved, but he al­ready had stage pres­ence. I could feel him ob­serv­ing me, soak­ing up the en­ergy that we car­ried across when we were play­ing with Neil. That was his tem­plate.”

Adding to the au­then­tic­ity were the songs Cooper and Nel­son wrote to­gether, in­clud­ing the open­ing “Black Eyes,”“out of Time,” which gave the film one of its themes, and “Too Far Gone,” all of which Nel­son ei­ther pro­duced or co-pro­duced.

“The process was very nat­u­ral and or­ganic,” Nel­son says. What most peo­ple don’t re­al­ize, given Cooper’s skills at vis­ually ap­prox­i­mat­ing the elec­tric gui­tar parts on cam­era, is that all the ac­tor’s elec­tric so­los were played by Nel­son. “He did a fan­tas­tic job hold­ing the gui­tar and go­ing down low like I do,” says Nel­son. “I pro­vided min­i­mal di­rec­tion. He had an ex­cep­tional abil­ity to pick up things by os­mo­sis. We played live to­gether, but there’s no way he could’ve learned all that crazy gui­tar solo­ing in two months.”

As for song­writ­ing, Nel­son praises Cooper’s abil­ity to sing all the notes he wanted him to play on those so­los. Cooper “knew in his head what he wanted,” the mu­si­cian mar­vels. “Mu­si­cally, if he put his mind to it, he can do what­ever he wants. He’s got a great ear and soul, which is all you re­ally need.”

For Nel­son, the story told by the movie “is like my life, for real … with­out the sui­cide, of course. It was a nat­u­ral thing for us, that con­flict be­tween a per­sonal life and be­ing on the road.”


Los An­ge­les na­tive Kris Bow­ers’ child­hood dream was to be­come a suc­cess­ful jazz pi­anist, then segue into com­pos­ing scores for mo­tion pic­tures as his idols Quincy Jones and Her­bie Han­cock had, and that is ex­actly the path his ca­reer has taken.

The 29-year- old Juil­liard alum was brought in three months be­fore pro­duc­tion be­gan on “Green Book” to as­sem­ble pre-record­ings and teach Ma­her­shala Ali to play pi­ano. When he was sent the script, Bow­ers was un­fa­mil­iar with Don Shirley’s mu­sic. “I was pretty blown away when I first heard it,” he says. “I won­dered what I had got­ten my­self into. His mu­sic is pretty in­tense. I had to prac­tice eight or nine hours a day just to mas­ter it.”

Bow­ers’ score is based on what most in­flu­enced Shirley’s work, in­clud­ing clas­si­cal Euro­pean mu­sic by De­bussy, Ravel, Chopin and Gersh­win, along with jazz, spir­i­tu­als, gospel and Amer­i­can folk melodies.

“My he­roes in film scor­ing had sim­i­lar roots — like John Williams, who started as a jazz pi­anist and turned into an in­cred­i­ble or­ches­tra­tor,” says Bow­ers, also cit­ing the in­flu­ence of clas­si­cal mu­sic on such sax play­ers as Cole­man Hawkins and Bud Pow­ell, who of­ten played Bach cello suites. “But Don Shirley was the first time I’d heard some­one take that jazz vo­cab­u­lary and per­form it in a clas­si­cal style.”

Bow­ers spent three months in pre-pro­duc­tion with Ali, who con­fessed he’d never played pi­ano be­fore, even though he’d recorded sev­eral rap records, while his wife is a mu­si­cian.

“To get him warmed up and com­fort­able, we started with a ba­sic C-ma­jor scale and some fin­ger ex­er­cises,” says Bow­ers. “That was sup­posed to take an hour, but three hours later, I had to phys­i­cally pry him from the key­board. By the end, he was play­ing ma­jor scales, two oc­taves, with both hands.”

For the most part, Bow­ers’ fingers are seen per­form­ing all the ac­tual pi­ano so­los in the movies; in cer­tain shots, Ali’s head is even placed on Bow­ers’ body to com­plete the il­lu­sion. “He did a great deal of work in study­ing the pos­ture of clas­si­cal and con­cert pi­anists. He even helped me with my own hunche­do­ver jazz crouch.”

Al­though there is very lit-

Mu­si­cally, if he put his mind to it, Bradley can do what­ever he wants. He’s got a great ear and soul.” Lukas Nel­son

Stage Pres­encePolly Ben­nett demon­strates the stance of Queen front­man Fred­die Mer­cury to “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” star Rami Malek.

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