Hollywood is hoping music biopics are their new golden ticket
Even months later, the success of Bohemian Rhapsody still feels unfathomable.
Despite a production nightmare and the mid-filming firing of director Bryan Singer, as well as critical accusations of straight-washing and of simply being hackneyed upon its release, the Freddie Mercury biopic went on not only to gross over $903.2 million at the box office but also to somehow land four Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Rami Malek.
Those that loved Bohemian Rhapsody were so enamored with it that they went again and again and again to see it. Not only did it have the full backing of Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor, who were heavily involved in its development and promotion, but it provided audiences with their only opportunity to see Mercury — well, Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury — singing some of the most popular songs ever created.
It is easy to scoff at and lament just how well Bohemian Rhapsody did. But in an era where original movies are repeatedly bulldozed by superheroes, reboots, and sequels, musical biopics at least provide audiences with some new and distinctive stories to see.
This summer especially. Thankfully, those that are overseeing the upcoming additions to the genre aren't just set on making them run-of-the-mill. Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, the imminent cinematic takes on the life of Elton John and the work and impact of The Beatles and Bruce Springsteen are coming at their subjects in different, intriguing, and, hopefully, illuminating ways.
Far from being a straightforward presentation of how Reginald Kenneth Dwight became Sir Elton Hercules John, Rocketman blends fantasy with biopic, using musical numbers and set-pieces to help tell the singer's life story. Coincidentally, it's directed by Dexter Fletcher, who replaced Singer after he was fired on Bohemian Rhapsody.
The result isn't just wildly ambitious and epic, it immediately makes Rocketman unique and glowing, while still providing the sing-a-long sequences that audiences want. As its first teaser trailer showed back in October, even mundane moments from the Elton's youth are given the musical treatment, and are elevated and enhanced as a result, while Fletcher's bombastic direction and an astounding performance from Taron Egerton make sure that Rocketman is always entertaining and anything but dull.
What's more is that, at the behest of Elton John himself, Rocketman doesn't shy away from the singer's potentially controversial moments; in addition to the highest of highs in the star's career, there are drugs, depression and loneliness. And it has been hailed for being the first ever major studio film to feature a male gay sex scene.
Bohemian Rhapsody this is not, and it'll be interesting to see how its box office numbers compare to its genre peer. Obviously the fact that it is being released at the height of the summer, and has to battle Godzilla: King Of The Monsters this week, Dark Phoenix next Friday, and Men In Black: International, Son Of Shaft, Late Night, The Secret Life Of Pets 2, and Toy Story 4 before the end of next month means it probably won't come close to Bohemian Rhapsody's haul, which had very little competition between its November release and Christmas. But the fact it has been met with more positive reviews, and has been widely praised for its progressive depictions, means it has already secured its first victory.
Another film that will provide Rocketman with competition right at the end of July is Yesterday. Yesterday revolves around struggling singer-songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) waking up in a world where he is the only person that has heard of The Beatles. Jack uses this opportunity to become a global musical superstar, as songs like “Hey Jude,” “She Loves You,” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” are catchy no matter the decade.
On the face of it the combination of bona-fide British beauties like producer Danny Boyle, writer Richard Curtis and The Beatles should be tantalizing for cinephiles and music aficionados alike. But it will be interesting to see whether Yesterday’s blending of Mamma Mia! and Groundhog Day is actually a success. Early reviews have suggested that it is just a formulaic rom-com with Beatles songs thrown in. Of course that might still be enough for some fans, those who want to come together in a large crowd to see the most famous songs of the most famous band in the world performed on the biggest screen possible.
But the fact that the two remaining Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, haven’t been anywhere near the promotional material, means it could just as easily be overlooked and dismissed by those who are pining for either a more substantial take on the band, akin to Bohemian Rhapsody, or an out-and-out jukebox musical, a la Mamma Mia! and its follow-up.
Blinded By The Light, set for release in late August, is neither of those. In fact, the best way to describe the British comedy is as a cinematic essay on the impact of Bruce Springsteen. Inspired by the life of Sarfraz Manor, Blinded By The Light tells the story of Javed (Vivek Kalra), who despite living in Luton, England, in 1987 becomes obsessed with the lyrics and music of “The Boss,” which empower him during a period of great racial and economic turmoil in the country.
Like Yesterday, Blinded By The Light honors the music rather than detailing the life that made it. But boosted by impressive reviews out of the Sundance Film Festival, and with the late summer particularly lean when it comes to competition, there's a good chance that smart marketing will entice a portion of Springsteen's legion of fans to celebrate the impact of his work.
Together, what these three movies already show is just how much the musical biopic has evolved.
In years gone by, the Oscar nominations picked up by Ray, Walk The Line, Amadeus, The Buddy Holly Story, Coal Miner’s Daughter, What's Love Got To Do With It, Shine and La Vie En Rose meant entries into the genre were usually regarded as prestige pictures — films that boosted studios' reputations more than their profits. This was even more true with adventurous music films like I'm Not There, Control, Love & Mercy, and 24 Hour Party People that received critical acclaim but made little money.
But now, the combination of 2015's Straight Outta Compton and Bohemian Rhapsody have exposed just how much money can be made when a huge studio and its subject matters back a musical biopic. With studios running out of genres that they know audiences are interested in, and with character-driven directors who aren't excited by superheroes running out of genres that studios are interested in, the musical biopic has become both a prestige and blockbuster release. That is of course, until one of them fails.