- - Thursday, August 8, 2019

Hip-hop tops today’s music charts, but classic rock rules the movie houses.

A rock ‘n’ roll wave has crashed into theaters in the wake of last year’s blockbusting “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the Freddie Mercury/Queen biopic that earned north of $900 million globally and won Rami Malek the Oscar for best actor. The Elton John fantasy biopic “Rocketman” has snared a respectable $185 million worldwide this year.

“Yesterday” — the “what if nobody remembered the Beatles” reverie — has become a certified summer sleeper, earning $67 million at the U.S. box office, and the Bruce Springsteen-inspired “Blinded by the Light,” which opens next week, shows that Hollywood can’t get enough rock.


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Steve Taylor, assistant professor of film and creative media at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, credits capitalism for the trend.

“‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was far and away the biggest music biopic of all time,” Mr. Taylor said. “Everybody wants to find the next one.”



A quick survey of music news sites reveals a number of cinematic profiles on the horizon: David Bowie, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Celine Dion and Keith Moon, the late drummer of The Who.

It’s more than just studios making bank on ticket sales, though.

According to Billboard, patrons of music streaming services tapped Queen’s catalog three times more than usual in the six months after the release of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” That generated nearly $18 million in streaming service revenue, up from the $4.4 million the band’s catalog drew in the six months before the film’s debut.

That is one reason Elton John cooperated with the “Rocketman” release and went so far as to perform with his on-screen portrayer, Taron Egerton.

The folks who control the legacies of classic acts and deceased rockers don’t mind seeing this synergy served up on the big screen.

“They have a vested interest in making their cash cow look good. … They’ll want final cut or approval,” Mr. Taylor said.

For example, surviving members of Queen collaborated extensively on “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Mr. Springsteen gave his approval to the “Blinded by the Light” script before filming began. The movie follows a Muslim teen in London in the ‘80s inspired by The Boss’ deeply personal songs.

Kylo-Patrick R. Hart, chairman of the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, said the timing couldn’t be better for classic rock revivals.

“In troubling times, which many believe we are living in today, movies serve as an important means of escape from everyday realities, and the allure of nostalgia intensifies,” Mr. Hart said. “The rock music [these movies] feature immediately transports many viewers back … to the times and places where they originally encountered and enjoyed it in their own lives.”

Singer/songwriter Seth Swirsky said audiences also hunger for a simpler era removed from the frenzied social media age. Movies like “Rocketman,” set primarily in the 1970s, deliver just that, said Mr. Swirsky, who is working on a sequel to his 2011 documentary, “Beatles Stories.”

It helps that the acts featured in the current crop of films were more than just chart toppers: The Beatles influenced fashion, hairstyles and even a sense of community with their tunes.

Mr. Swirsky said a dash of mystery also helps push a classic rock film into the must-see category. Audiences know all the basics about the Beatles, from their humble beginnings in Liverpool to their near-global acclaim to their shocking breakup. Other stars, such as Queen’s Mercury, leave many more questions to be answered. It may help explain why “Rhapsody” outsold “Rocketman.”

When director Danny Boyle first focused on “Yesterday,” he made sure to snag the song rights before cameras could roll. Mr. Boyle’s fantasy follows a singer/songwriter (Himesh Patel) who is the only person on Earth who remembers the Beatles after a brief cosmic disruption.

The film’s director told Billboard that today’s musicians are more open to sharing their songs, in part, to expose them to a new and younger generation. The outlet estimated that filmmakers of “Yesterday” paid roughly $10 million for the rights to the Beatles’ music featured in the film. The filmmakers secured the approval of surviving Beatles Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney, along with the widows of George Harrison and John Lennon — Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono.

Steve Matteo, author of “Let It Be” and the forthcoming “The Beatles in Context,” said musicians can’t rely much on radio exposure in 2019. That makes Hollywood crossovers all the more valuable.

If a classic rock ditty is heard on a top 20 TV show, it can have a much greater impact than a few radio plays, said Mr. Matteo, adding that modern consumers are less likely to buy a CD but are open to seeing a movie about Elton John.

The music rights still don’t come cheap, but it helps make a modestly budgeted movie like “Yesterday” possible.

Eric Kurlander, a history professor at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, said the people calling the shots in Hollywood also matter.

“Gen Xers and younger baby boomers are running the film industry,” Mr. Kurlander said.

Those executives aren’t hungering to turn minor acts like Erasure or KRS-One into cinematic gold, he said, adding that they crave the classic rock staples that connect to the largest swath of moviegoers.

“They’re picking huge, mainstream artists whose biggest fans have a lot of capital,” he said. “The Beatles always sell well. There’s a calculation … artists with a huge catalog for which many people are nostalgic … [the 1986 punk biopic] ‘Sid and Nancy’ wasn’t made to make money.”

Mr. Hart said “Bohemian Rhapsody“‘s monster success made similar projects inevitable. That doesn’t mean the trend will last indefinitely.

“This is likely to turn out to be a brief film cycle for now that will recur in the future, given that audience members are likely to tire quickly of too many such offerings in a row,” he said.

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