Music for Screens
Pros taught Malek to rock, Ali to play piano and Cooper to shred on guitar
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’S RIFFING DOPPELGANGER
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.”
THE KEYS TO MAHERSHALA ALI’S PIANO
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.