Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” opened in the U.K. last weekend, with the rest of the world following this week. In the home country of Queen, it grossed over $12 million; based on relative population, that would extrapolate to opening over $60 million in North America.
At that level, it would be second only to “Straight Outta Compton” among films that tell the stories of popular music acts. That opened to $66 million (adjusted to 2018 ticket prices, as are all figures here). Anything above $32 million puts it above “Walk the Line.” Current tracking suggests it might outpace “A Star Is Born.”
However, despite strong interest in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” prior films’ performances suggest success is not assured. Here are the factors that loom as the film is starts its run.
Pop-music biopics are not automatic successes.
The genre goes back to the early days of sound, but in recent decades it has been mostly a minor footnote. In the last four decades, only five reached the (adjusted) $100 million mark:
- “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (Loretta Lynn/1978) – $228 million
- “Straight Outta Compton” (NWA/2015) – $178 million
- “Walk the Line” (Johnny Cash, June Carter/2005) – $169 million
- “La Bamba” (Richie Valens/1978) – $127 million
- “Ray” (Ray Charles/2004) – $111 million
That’s an average of once every eight years, with none in two entire decades (1980s and 1990s) and so far only three in the 19 years since. In the current business environment, that’s unsurprising: Biopics don’t franchise, and are a hard sell for one-size-fits-all international audiences.
That said, biopics can break out; recent examples include “The Greatest Showman,” “Hidden Figures,” “Sully,” “American Sniper,” “The Imitation Game,” and “Captain Phillips.” However, outside perhaps P.T. Barnum, audiences were unfamiliar with the films’ subjects beyond their associated historic events. That relative anonymity, and the easier path to an original narrative, might make them more salable than a music-world biopic.
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Freddie Mercury and Queen Aren’t Like Other Successful Music Biopics
The biggest music biopics have been about country stars, African-American artists, and a Latino icon. While white men may dominate the rock music world, they haven’t meant much to the movie world. The biggest one of this subset has been Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” in 1991. That film, the director’s first after winning his second Oscar, grossed just under $75 million adjusted, and likely failed to make a profit. Movies like “The Buddy Holly Story,” “Jersey Boys,” and “Great Balls of Fire!” did even less. If “Bohemian Rhapsody” does break out, it will be an exception.
20th Century Fox
Why “Bohemian Rhapsody” Could Be the Exception
“The Doors” came 20 years after Jim Morrison’s death; “Bohemian Rhapsody” comes 28 years after Mercury’s. Queen sold more records, and had a much bigger audience for its live performances, with key songs like “We Are the Champions” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” becoming cultural staples far beyond, say, “Light My Fire.”
It also has Mercury, whose personal story goes beyond most rock stars in flamboyance and drama. (Who would really be interested in the David Lee Roth or the Eddie Van Halen story, or even Bruce Springsteen for all his artistry and achievements?)
Even before his death, Mercury was larger than life. Prince had as much musical impact, but his offstage persona was subdued. Decades later, with greater interest in Mercury’s sort of pansexuality and showmanship, his life story could suggest the kinds of stories that have elevated bigger hits.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” also benefits from being an anomaly: There just aren’t many movies made like this, and that could give it traction. That said, it doesn’t hurt that the fictional “A Star Is Born” is currently a smash. Audiences enjoying that experience (and seeing trailers and the marketing for “Bohemian Rhapsody”) might now be potential ticket buyers.
Alex Bailey/Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
“Bohemian Rhapsody” Has Awards Potential — But Those Reviews
Biofilms are Oscar bait for actors. Eight of the last 20 lead acting Oscars went to portrayals of real-life characters, including Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Thatcher, Stephen Hawking, and Winston Churchill. And Rami Malek’s performance has garnered most favorable notice in what have otherwise been mediocre reviews. While its primary audience is unlikely to care about awards, its early-November release should increase awards notice. Malek received an Emmy for “Mr. Robot,” and his range here could further impress.
However, the list of musical portrayals that receive nominations came from films that received much better reviews. These include “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Ray,” and “Walk the Line” (all won lead Oscars; the first two were nominated for Best Picture). “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “The Buddy Holly Story,” and “Sweet Dreams” (country star Patsy Cline) got lead nominations. “Compton” was up for screenplay.
Meanwhile, “Bohemian Rhapsody” currently has a below-average Metacritic score of 48. It’s hard to find any similar film, with reviews at that level, that grossed over $50 million. “Jersey Boys” in 2014 is closest (Metacritic: 54), and it barely made that figure in today’s numbers.
So, the wind is not at the film’s back. Still, expectations have been rising. The latest projections, with advance sales being reported, is it could open as high as $50 million. That would be a terrific result to start, and if audiences provide word of mouth, the lesser reviews won’t matter. Anything close to that level would be a triumph.