Good old-fashioned music draws movie audiences

Musicals predicted to be top contenders leading into Oscar season.

By
November 11, 2018 18:06
Bradley Cooper

U.S. actor Bradley Cooper arrives to a showing of the feature film A Star Is Born at the San Sebastian Film Festival, Spain, September 29, 2018. (photo credit: VINCENT WEST / REUTERS)

 
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Bohemian Rhapsody, the story of a young British man named Farrokh Bulsara – better known by his stage name, Freddie Mercury – and his music, was the most popular movie around the world on its first weekend, selling more than $50 million worth of tickets in the US alone.

That the story of a musician who passed away nearly 27 years ago, long before a sizable chunk of today’s viewers were even born, could draw so many to theaters is a testament to the enduring power of musicals, whether biopics, romances or cheery romps.

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Maybe audiences are missing Glee, because two other musicals have been runaway successes this year, A Star is Born and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. The fact that these three films have hit it so big shows that audiences don’t just want superheroes, the supernatural and car chases. They also go for melodic songs with clear, emotional lyrics. In the case of Bohemian Rhapsody and Mamma Mia!, it also shows that audiences actually crave older music, since both feature pop tunes from the 70s and 80s. And while A Star is Born has original songs, they are mostly conventional ballads.

Bohemian Rhapsody was the biggest gamble of the three, but it has paid off handsomely. It’s a standard biopic about Mercury, and details his conflicts with his traditional Parsi immigrant family from India, his bisexuality, his innate musicality and talent (he wrote, sang and played music), his uncanny flamboyance and flair for live performance and his struggle to accept his AIDS diagnosis in the mid-1980s.

The huge challenge for the filmmakers and Rami Malek, the star of the television series Mr. Robot, who plays the lead, was to capture the exuberance and talent of the young Mercury, and Malek does a terrific job. Sure, if you head home from the theater and look up clips of Mercury performing live – and to judge from the comments under many of these clips on YouTube, many viewers did just that – you will realize that no one could ever recreate Mercury’s magic, but Malek gives a more than credible performance, and seems a lock for a Best Actor Oscar nod. The casting of Malek, who is popular with young audiences from Mr. Robot and who won an Emmy for that series, surely added to film’s box-office muscle.

The film has drawn criticism that it foregrounded Mercury’s relationship with Mary Austin too much, focusing on the relatively brief period when Mercury tried to live as a heterosexual before he realized he was more attracted to men. Other reviewers were lukewarm, saying it was a by-the-numbers biopic. But the reviews haven’t deterred audiences, some of whom have seen it multiple times in the brief period since it was released. There has been a spike in sales of Queen songs, with five Queen hits in the iTunes top 25.

A Star is Born is a story that has been told on film four times, first with Janet Gaynor and Frederic March in 1937 in a straight dramatic version, then three times as a musical – with Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954, Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976, and now with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, who also directed the film. It seems that every generation needs to retell this saga of a down-on-his-luck star who falls in love with and then is eclipsed by a talented newcomer. Songs from the film sung by Lady Gaga, as well as a duet between her and Cooper, are topping the charts, and the movie is one of the biggest hits of the year, still one of the top five at the US box office months after its release, making more than $165 million in the US. That means it’s not only the Gaga fans who are flocking to the film.


Oscar watchers are predicting it will be nominated in all the major categories, and its producers have submitted three original songs co-written by its leading lady for consideration. Although Lady Gaga has long been a pop phenomenon, she has won raves for acting as well as her singing. Eschewing the crazy costumes that have been her trademark, she dresses down and sings everything from country music to techno pop.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the sequel to the 2008 Mamma Mia!, an adaption of the Broadway show set to ABBA songs, was also an unlikely hit this summer.

Sequels rarely earn the money or acclaim like the original, but the Mamma Mia! retread made more than $320 million around the world. It tells the story of the Meryl Streep character from the first movie in her youth, when she was busy having affairs with three men, one of whom fathered her daughter, played by Amanda Seyfried. Rising star Lily James plays the lead, and although Meryl Streep only has a cameo, the cast features enough veteran actors – among them Cher, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters – to attract audiences of all generations. But the real stars of the movie are the lovely Greek landscape and, of course, the ABBA soundtrack, which includes such favorites as “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo.”

Interestingly, the trend seems to be extending to Israel. The most popular Israeli film at the box office now is Avi Nesher’s The Other Story, and while it isn’t a musical per se, musician Nathan Goshen plays a role, and wrote and performed several original songs for the film. The title tune has been a big hit throughout Israel. Two other Israeli movies about musicians, Redemption (Geula) and Here and Now, premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival this summer and will be opening in theaters soon.

Of course, these aren’t the first musicals to top the box office – La La Land was a huge hit two years ago, as was Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast – but there does seem to be a trend. More musicals are on the way, including an updated Mary Poppins film and another live action Disney film, Aladdin, starring Will Smith as the genie.

So if you’d rather tap your toes than watch an action flick, you’re not alone, and the powers-that-be in Hollywood have taken notice.

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