Queen, Elton, Bruce: Is Classic Rock the Next Great Hollywood I.P. Well?
In mid-December 2017, director Dexter Fletcher received a call from Twentieth Century Fox Film vice chairman Emma Watts. The studio had just fired Bryan Singer from its long-gestating Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, in the middle of production. Watts needed someone to rescue the film—fast. Fletcher was familiar with the project, having once been set to direct it himself in 2013, with Ben Whishaw attached to star as bombastic front man Freddie Mercury.
But creative differences, primarily over the PG-13 rating, drove the pairing apart. Fox was so desperate now that Fletcher didn’t have time to see Singer’s footage beforehand, nor was he able to meet with Rami Malek, the man who eventually landed in Mercury’s jumpsuit and chompers. Fox called Fletcher on a Thursday to start work that following Monday. He’d have to move quickly for his own sake as well. Fletcher needed to finish the film by April 2018, so he could move on to his own project steeped in F.M.-rock nostalgia, Rocketman, a musical film about the life and times of Elton John.
If it’s not already clear, Fletcher’s schedule juggling paid off massively. Bohemian Rhapsody, a salvage job several times over throughout its development and production lifespan, became a global phenomenon despite lukewarm reviews, made almost $900 million in box-office revenue, and won four Oscars, including best actor for Malek. It also, incidentally, might have set Rocketman up for success when it hits screens in May, with Taron Egerton following in Malek’s mustachioed path, strutting his way through John’s songbook (and many, many elaborate costumes). “No one really knew what Bohemian Rhapsody would do,” Fletcher said in a recent interview, recalling his roller coaster last 18 months. “I knew it was a good film, but there is no exact formula. So when it did come out, and it did so great, we thought, ‘Well, this bodes well for us. There is an appetite for these kinds of films in this world.’”
In the next few months, while Marvel is busy delivering the Avengers to their Endgame and Sony is serving up new iterations of Men in Black and Spider-Man to theaters, another kind of familiar intellectual property will have a moment amid the capes and reboots we’ve come to expect each summer: your parents’ record collection. This year’s release slate features a double L.P.’s worth of classic-rock-inflected films that center on the catalogues of the Beatles, Elton John, and Bruce Springsteen—and there’s more to come. While music biopics and jukebox musicals have long been a reliable story well for Hollywood, going back to Frankie Avalonand Annette Funicello’s Beach Blanket Bingo all the way through to What’s Love Got to Do with It, Ray, Walk the Line, and Mamma Mia! But in the wake of Bohemian Rhapsody, something different may be taking shape. Studios are banking on audiences’ familiarity with songs that have been radio staples for decades, in a world in which it is increasingly more difficult to pry audiences off their couches.
In other words: farewell, Captain America. Hello, Ziggy Stardust.
“I think there definitely is a thing with music and film going on at this moment,” said Tim Bevan, the co-chairman of Working Title, the British production company behind director Danny Boyle’s June release, Yesterday. The high-concept fable imagines a world in which the Beatles never existed, except in the mind of one struggling guitarist, who makes fortuitous use of the band’s catalogue.
“These musical films can stand on their own right, because they have an I.P. of their own,” Bevan said. “They have something that an audience knows about already, and it’s the music.”
“We go to the cinema to be moved,” Bevan continued. “With these songs that we already know, the connection is instantly emotional. With Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s why we go to the cinema: to enjoy something, to laugh at something, to sing along to something with a group of other people.”
Nell Williams as Eliza, Viveik Karla as Javed and Aaron Phagura as Roops in New Line Cinema’s jukebox drama featuring Bruce Springsteen’s music, Blinded by the Light.
That sentiment was clearly on the minds of the executives at New Line in January. At the time, Bohemian Rhapsody was crossing the $200 million mark in its domestic-box-office tally, and had already landed two coveted Golden Globes, including best drama, when the studio started circling Blinded by the Light, the joyous Springsteen sing-along by Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha. Based on a memoir by British Pakistani journalist and Springsteen super-fan Sarfraz Manzoor, the film is an immigrant tale masked as a jukebox musical, and features big cues for Boss classics such as “Dancing in the Dark,” “Born to Run,” and “Prove It All Night,” among many others. New Line eventually bought the film for $15 million, the most spent at Sundance this year.
“I wanted to take you into this world of this British-Asian family from 1987 who was struggling, to see how does this kid find his way out of that and find meaning [in] his life?” said Chadha in an interview this week. “He does it through music. Music can help you find your way, and, in some cases, save your life. In his case, it happened to be Bruce Springsteen, but it could be anybody’s anthem.”
The director had just flown back to Los Angeles from Las Vegas, where she had debuted the movie to exhibitors around the country at the annual CinemaCon confab. An additional screening and reception held at the ArcLight Wednesday night reinforced the studio’s commitment to the mid-August release.
“Part of the success of Bohemian Rhapsody was the fact that we all got to relive and cherish and feel emotional about a great artist who had died. He was alive again for us,” said Chadha, when asked about the mini-boom. “And it was
great fun to go to the cinema and hear that music again.”
Paramount executives were equally high on Rocketman at CinemaCon, with studio chairman and C.E.O. Jim Gianopulos going so far as to brand John a “superhero” after a group of high-energy dancers kick-stepped to the stage to John’s upbeat “I’m Still Standing.” The extravagance was a step more fabulous than the party the studio threw last month for journalists at the iconic Troubadour, where John made his U.S. debut in 1970. The film is a musical rendering of John’s life, told through fantastical imagery and music. Fletcher, who began his career as a child actor, said that while Bohemian Rhapsody was a biopic, Rocketman is a musical, and an R-rated one at that. (Rather than feature John’s beloved falsetto, Egerton will sing himself, a move that might flummox the most die-hard of fans, but will add to Egerton’s burgeoning rock cred.) While Fletcher couldn’t get Bohemian Rhapsody’s backers to budge on its PG-13 rating, his Rocketman producers, including John himself, were pleased to let the director depict the warts-and-all saga of John’s turbulent life and career.
“Elton has been quite clear about wanting to show his humanity,” said Fletcher, who was frantically trying to finish his film before its May 31 release date. “For me, to show when someone hits rock bottom, that’s not always a PG place to be. I wanted my highs to be high, and in order to do that, I needed my lows low. He crawled out [of those lows] on his hands and fucking knees with blood, sweat, and tears on his face. We earn that. We feel that. And that, to me, was important.”
While some critics were frustrated by Bohemian Rhapsody’s reluctance to grapple more fully with Mercury’s sexual agency, there’s no doubt its milder rating helped at the box office, not to mention the film’s Live Aid re-enactment, which became a near-religious moment for many die-hard Queen fans. R-rated musicals have a rough track record, with only The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and The Blues Brothers cracking the genre’s top 20 at the box office. Sweeney Todd, in 2007, was rated R, and it only earned $152 million worldwide—and that was with Johnny Depp in the lead.
“Bohemian Rhapsody’s PG-13 rating was paramount to its success,” said Chris Aronson, the former Fox distribution chief. “It was always intended to be a celebration of Freddie Mercury and Queen and their music, and, as such, we wanted to make it accessible to audiences everywhere around the world.”
Aronson’s work on Bohemian Rhapsody’s release was one of his last duties before the Fox-Disney merger was completed. Speaking this week, he recalled a moment in the film’s development, when the power of nostalgia for Mercury—and his box-office potential—became clear to him: at one of Queen’s live shows, at L.A.’s Hollywood Bowl, where former American Idol contestant Adam Lambert filled in for Mercury.
“I got there one and a half hours ahead of showtime, because I wanted to really look at the crowd to see who the band was appealing to,” he said. “It was such a multi-generational crowd. That was so striking: grandparents, parents, and kids, and it was diverse as well. That really stood out.”
When Working Title’s Bevan first heard the pitch for Yesterday, he thought it would be impossible, mostly due to monetary concerns. Does anyone this side of telecoms giants have the dough to license the Beatles catalogue? But the group’s publishing rights are held by Sony Music, and the task proved to be relatively painless once the filmmakers realized they didn’t need master usage of the music. Their actors would be singing the songs, not the Beatles themselves. It was an added bonus that the production received the blessings of Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and the spouses of Harrison and Lennon.
“Legally, we only had to get permission from Sony,” said Bevan. “Morally, we went to the men and the wives themselves, to get them on board. They were very supportive.”
When we spoke, Bevan was understandably hopeful that something approaching Bohemian Rhapsody’s wide audience will show interest in his company’s film. He was especially impressed with its reach to younger audiences, some of whom weren’t yet born when Queen was still a going concern. “Although a younger generation won’t be ‘into the Beatles,’ those songs will somehow be in their psyche,” he said. “They’ve heard them. Their parents played them.
They will know them without realizing they know them.”
Of course, just like everything in Hollywood, some of these upcoming films will head to the top of the charts, while others might not crack the Hot 100. And whether or not studio executives around town start diving deep into their vinyl crates to deliver us the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd: The Motion Picture or Mr. Blue Sky: The Electric Light Orchestra Story will likely depend on it. Until then, Fletcher is proud of his part of this boomlet while it still has gas. An indie British production company is set to begin production on Stardust, which will tell the story of David Bowie’s iconic alter ego. This November, the holiday romance Last Christmas will debut, based on a script Emma Thompson wrote that incorporates music from the George Michael and Wham! catalogue.
“It’s very exciting to be part of my own cinematic universe,” said Fletcher with a laugh. “That’s a dream realized.”