How Bradley Cooper, Rami Malek and Mahershala Ali Mastered Music for the Screen

Music pros were tasked with teaching the stars of "A Star Is Born," "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Green Book" all the right moves.

Polly Bennett Rami Malek choreography bohemian
Alex Bailey

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

Lukas Nelson, co-songwriter, co-producer, guitarist, actor, “A Star Is Born”

Bradley Cooper decided to use Willie’s son (who turned 30 on Christmas Day) after seeing him and his band Promise of the Real accompany 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

Kris Bowers, score composer, “Green Book”

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 hunched-over jazz crouch.”

Although there is very little footage of the real Shirley performing, Bowers helped develop Ali’s character by studying still images.

At the New York premiere of the movie, Bowers said the executor of Shirley’s estate, a former student, told him and Ali that the pianist was “incredibly critical and meticulous, but he would be really proud of this movie.”

Rami’s Mercury Rising

Rob Preuss, piano coach; Polly Bennett, movement coach; “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Rami Malek admitted he’d never touched a piano key when Burlington, Ontario native Rob Preuss — a former member of Canadian bands including the Spoons and Honeymoon Suite — sat down to teach him some rudiments of playing before the start of filming on “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

“I had to show him, not only how to play, but how to look like he was playing,” says Preuss, who previously tutored Penn Badgley for his role as Jeff Buckley in the 2012 biopic “Greetings From Tim Buckley.”

Ironically, one of the few piano parts Malek did play took place in the scene in which he lies on his back underneath the piano and reaches up to plunk the keys without looking. “Nope, I didn’t teach him to do that,” says Preuss. He did, however, teach him Mercury’s famous left-over-right-hand crossover move of the title track.

For the one-time rock keyboardist, who moved from Toronto to New York in 2000 to become an assistant music director for the Broadway version of “Mamma Mia!,” working with Malek on “Bohemian Rhapsody” was a dream come true. “I couldn’t imagine anybody now other than Rami in that role,” says the lifelong Queen fan, whose other two favorite pianists are Elton John and Liberace. “No film can really do justice to how great Queen was then. I hope young kids are sent back to their bedrooms and headphones to listen to those records.”

London-based choreographer Polly Bennett, who calls herself a “movement director,” was brought in on the climactic Live Aid performance, which, ironically, was the very first sequence shot for the film.

“My job was to unpack what made Freddie Mercury so great, special and unique — the nuts and bolts of who he was, expressed through his physicality,” she explains. “Part of that history included boxing, golf and long-distance running, all of which we incorporated into Rami’s body language.”

Bennett points to how Freddie punches the sky like a fighter, struts across the stage like a runner or swings the mic like a golf club, all of which Malek worked into muscle memory to achieve his remarkable transformation.

“We dissected every aspect of his physical life,” she says. “Every move has a psychological basis. The joy of my job is trying to analyze that and find practical ways of accessing it.”