Aretha in Amazing Grace
When it was first released last autumn, Bohemian Rhapsody received lukewarm reviews. From its inception in 2010 it was dogged by problems including a change of lead actor and the sacking of the original director. At one point it looked as if it may never see the light of day. But fast-forward a year and the film has won four Oscars and a clutch of other major awards, while its colossal box office earnings – £556million on a production budget of £30million – set the all-time box office record for the biopic and drama genres. What sealed its success was the realisation by fans and movie moguls alike that films with music at their heart are best seen in a cinema with surround sound audio and a big screen.
We know now what it takes to get people to the theatre
“We know now what it takes to get people to the theatre,” said Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays Elton John’s mother, Sheila Farebrother, in Rocketman, just released in Britain.
“It takes a giant spectacle.We don’t drive to the theatre, buy a ticket, buy popcorn, watch through the previews, all for something you can watch at home,” said the actress at this year’s Cannes Film Festival where a slew of big-budget music documentaries and biopics were touted by production firms hoping to reverse the threat posed by streaming services like Netflix and Amazon.
Dexter Fletcher, British director of Bohemian Rhapsody and the Sir Elton John biopic, said that the “right note with the right voice with the right image sends tingles up your spine. That is an incredible experience. That is what we go to the theatre for”.
Hot on the heels of Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman and Amazing Grace, the film of the eponymous album by Aretha Franklin, are planned documentaries and films about Judy Garland, Led Zeppelin, Oasis, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee and TheVelvet Underground.
Bryce said with the “industry changing rapidly … [we] in the movie business really need to think about levelling up”. While cinema attendance in Britain was at its highest level last year since 1970 with 177 million visits, the first three months of 2019 showed a significant decline. There were only 37 million visits compared with 46 million last year and 47.5 million in 2017.
Film studios and cinema chains face a huge challenge against what Bryce described as “robust” streaming services which give film-makers enormous budgets and artistic autonomy compared with studios who tend to interfere. Music could be their saviour: “The one thing cinema can provide is that communal experience,” says Allan Hunter, critic with Screen International.
“The electricity of sharing a moment of entertainment, excitement and pleasure, and music movies do that just as much as superhero blockbusters. “I think the success of sing-along versions of classics like The Sound Of Music and Calamity Jane showed just what an appetite there was for films that were almost like attending a live concert, where you could join in and become part of the experience.
“The success of Mamma Mia! La La Land and The Greatest Showman merely confirmed the hunger for more films with soaring emotions that take flight on the wings of a catchy song and a dance,” he says.
At Cannes last week, various projects were being touted around including a Led Zeppelin documentary which features the group’s surviving members, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones.
The as-yet untitled documentary is thought to tell the story of the band’s early days when their second album knocked The Beatles’ Abbey Road album off the number one spot. Also in the pipeline is a film about Liam Gallagher and Oasis, the Manchester band that came to define 1990s Britpop, called Liam Gallagher, As It Was. It features concert performances from some of the band’s biggest gigs in Manchester and Glastonbury.
The award season 2020 looks set to be dominated by musical movie nominations with so many in the pipeline and one to watch, say critics, is Judy, the biopic of Judy Garland starring Renee Zellweger. Directed by Rupert Goold, the film unfolds during Garland’s final year before her death from an accidental overdose in Britain aged 47.
It shows the Wizard of Oz star arriving in London in the winter of 1968 for a five-week run of sell-out concerts at the Talk of the Town club as she battles her management, and reveals her ties with musicians and her devoted fans.
Given its US opening date of September, just as awards season is heating up, Zellweger, who hasn’t had a major role since the 2016 sequel, Bridget Jones’s Baby, could be in the running for a lead Oscar.
Award-winning producer and writer Lee Daniel is behind a new film about Billie Holiday, and Reese Witherspoon stars in a biopic of the late American jazz diva Peggy Lee, directed by Oscar-nominee Todd Haynes.
Haynes also gave Cannes a sneak preview of his other project, a documentary about the legendary rock band The Velvet Underground, which showed footage from the avant-garde outfit fronted by the late Lou Reed.
The British Pavilion at Cannes also highlighted upcoming musical projects including Let There Be Rock, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins, about a rock band and its misfit members.
Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman
Then there is Yesterday, out next month, the creation of Danny Boyle and rom-com writer, Richard Curtis, about an amateur singer, played by Himesh Patel, who wakes up after a freak accident in a world where The Beatles never existed.
Starring Lily James and Ed Sheeran as himself, the film allows the protagonist to pass off the Fab Four’s music as his own and is a jolly good excuse for an audience singalong.
Rocketman star Bryce said that films with music at their heart need to be watched communally.
“You go to the theatre for an experience for something memorable and for something shared,” she said. “So a forest of stories of musicians with music – that brings that spectacle, it kind of demands that united experience. It would be a shame to watch [Rocketman] on your own.”
For music fans, we are about to enter a golden cinema age where any iconic band or solo performer is potential material, according to Allan Hunter. “Bohemian Rhapsody earned almost $1billion worldwide and won Oscars, so there’s big money and kudos here,” he says.
“Rocketman looks like being a similar hit, Yesterday is waiting in the wings, and now everyone’s back catalogue is a potential soundtrack for a hit movie musical. Cilla Black? Tina Turner? Prince? Anything is likely now.”