The evolution of the musical film – with the help of big music stars

Taron Egerton in Rocketman
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It’s not just musicals that are thriving in Hollywood – movies based on music and musicians aren’t doing badly either.

Up until the Avengers came along, the biggest selling DVD of 2019 in the UK has been Bohemian Rhapsody, the film that sketchily tells the story of Queen and Freddie Mercury. Last year, one of the absolute biggest sellers was The Greatest Showman, but also hanging around near the top of the chart was Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Already this year, whilst not a commercial success on the same level, Elton John biopic Rocketman managed to find some space for itself in the midst of a superhero-and-sequel-packed summer. The bill for using The Beatles’ music in Yesterday was soon justified by the movie’s box office. The terrific Blinded By The Light will be hoping to repeat the trick this August, fuelled by the music of Bruce Springsteen. And Paul Feig’s upcoming festive comedy Last Christmas (co-written by and co-starring Emma Thompson) has been inspired by the songbook of George Michael.


What we’re seeing then is an evolution of not necessarily the movie musical itself, but certainly the musical film. In recent years, films such as Sing Street and The Last Five Years have earned good to excellent reviews, but failed to convert that into box office gold. The near $1bn gross of Bohemian Rhapsody, though, has opened Hollywood’s eyes to a fresh way forward. Carry on with the musical film, but tie it to an existing, and ideally popular, songbook.

Sure, Mamma Mia! came up with this idea over a decade ago, and the ‘jukebox musical’ has been a staple of the West End and Broadway for even longer than that. But what’s interesting about the current trend for such Hollywood projects is firstly, that they’re able to exist in an era where there appears to be an unwritten rule that films must cost nine figures to be able to compete. And secondly, that the films are also willing to use those songbooks to explore rougher edges than you may expect from mainstream movies.

Take that Mamma Mia! sequel, which I wrote about here. Using the primarily upbeat music of Abba, it was shaped into a movie that superbly explored loss and grief in the midst of a hugely uplifting summer film. Rocketman reordered the chronology of Elton John’s music, and did so for real dramatic impact. The title song, giving little away for those who haven’t seen the film, goes to very different sides of Elton John’s life, all in a matter of minutes. It’s some piece of work.

Even the maligned Bohemian Rhapsody (and I liked the film, personally) doesn’t entirely shy away from the harsher moments in Freddie Mercury’s life.

What these films are showcasing is a way to entertain audiences, explore darker themes and – crucially for Hollywood studios, increasingly burned by films that aren’t breaking through – mitigate risk.

Rocketman may in the scheme of modern blockbusters look quite modest, returning just shy of $200m from its $40m budget (and it helps that the movies are generally quite economical to make too). But it’s also shifting soundtrack sales, tickets to Elton John gigs, and the singalong screenings started playing in the UK at the end of July. Plus, the metaphorical long tale is all but guaranteed from the disc release.


Crucially, all of this has also offered a path forward outside of sequels and comic book properties (I say that aiming no slight at either) for studios furiously looking for new, interesting material.

The latest project along the same lines to be announced is a biopic of Boy George, that’s been set up at MGM under the eye of Anvil! director Sacha Gervasi. That film is set to chart the singer’s life from his east London childhood to the rise of Culture Club in the 80s, and what happened next. All accompanied by Boy George’s extensive catalogue of music.

There’s also, in the States, a biopic of Aretha Franklin that’s in development, by the name of Respect. That’s scheduled for next summer, with Liesl Tommy directing, from a screenplay by Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise). Jennifer Hudson takes the lead role in that. Furthermore, you can bet that songbooks are being explored and meetings are taking place regarding the work of other singers and artists. There are just the projects that we know about.

It would be remiss too to overlook the fact that, fuelled by the aforementioned The Greatest Showman and also La La Land, the more traditional movie musical is threatening a purple patch too. As hooted at as the trailer for Cats may have been in some quarters, it would be a brave person to bet against it being a big hit when it lands in cinemas this coming Christmas. Furthermore, in 2020, Steven Spielberg will have his big screen remake of West Side Story in cinemas, whilst closer to home, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is in production for a release next October as well.

The resurgence of musically driven films may have been disguised slightly by the fact that their box office tends to be more modest than huge blockbusters, but it’s a quiet trend that’s getting louder. Furthermore, these are films where the box office and disc sales are far from the be all and end all of their income. And, thankfully for us in the seats of our local multiplexes, the films have been strong on the whole too.

That, surely, is something worth singing about…

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