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‘Rocketman’ Is Another Hit Music Biopic, But Please Don’t Think That Makes It a Trend

Elton John's movie beat expectations, and "Bohemian Rhapsody" was a smash, but the challenges of music biopics are more complicated than two box-office hits.

"Rocketman" Orgy

“Rocketman”

Paramount

Rocketman” made $25.7 million in its opening weekend, upending all estimates. It’s on track for perhaps $200 million in worldwide theatrical which, with ancillary revenue, is more than enough to turn a profit with a production cost of around $40 million. However, it’s nowhere near the $900 million global take for “Bohemian Rhapsody” just seven months ago — and with studios suddenly excited about replicating that success, it makes sense to examine what determined the difference.

Career-spanning sales might suggest Elton John was as big a draw as Queen; rough estimates have John at around 300 million units sold, while Freddie Mercury and company sold around 250 million. But translating music stardom into movies is far trickier than that.

'Bohemian Rhapsody"

‘Bohemian Rhapsody”

Fox

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ had first-mover advantage

As a music biopic, it stood alone; nothing similar had a wide release since “Straight Outta Compton” in 2015. It came a few weeks after “A Star Is Born,” which exposed its audience to the trailer, and it opened against relatively little competition. (And if nothing else, disgraced director Bryan Singer provided plenty of free publicity.) If all of those elements were equal, you could have flipped the release dates and seen “Rocketman” open to $40 million in November.

Two musical biopics, two audiences

Both films’ opening weekends had about a 50/50 gender split, but “Rocketman” played significantly older. That audience is less likely to show up immediately, even if the interest is there.

Elton John broke out in late 1970 — shortly after the first moon landing, Woodstock, and the Manson killings. Queen arrived more than a decade later. The nostalgia factor gives the edge to the more recent group.

Though both films feature flamboyant, larger-than-life performers, Queen and Elton John came from different entertainment traditions. Although John famously played a two-night stand at Dodger Stadium in 1975 (and has played more traditional stadiums ever since), the songs he wrote with Bernie Taupin have always been more classic in structure. Queen favored a bombastic, stadium-rock edge that lent themselves to anthems. No value judgment here, but just as their shows and sales didn’t necessarily appeal to the same consumers, the same is true with their movies.

A factor that likely cuts down the domestic appeal for “Rocketman” is the greater focus on its subject’s romantic life. Mercury and John are both gay icons, but where “Rhapsody” was PG-13, “Rocketman” is R. Anecdotal reports we’ve heard from some theaters suggested that, compared to “Rhapsody,” gay viewers comprised a much higher percentage of the initial audience. If so, they may not sustain the numbers required to hit the higher multiples against the opening gross.

There’s also a difference in the story beats. Mercury’s featured immigrant working-class roots, more of a rock-star image, and his early death. By comparison, there’s less mystery surrounding John: After years of debauchery and substance abuse, he settled down with a husband, kids, a knighthood, and friendship with royalty. What grabs people is never certain, but “Rhapsody” may have had the more dramatic hooks.

And then there’s the zeitgeist

Whether it’s “The Exorcist,” “Star Wars,” “Titanic,” “Passion of the Christ,” or “Black Panther,” when films break out far above the norm the reasons only reveal themselves in the rearview. That may be the case for “Rhapsody,” which means it could elude future marketers’ attempts to replicate it.

Here’s one armchair analysis: With a sense of narcissism that feels very current, Queen celebrated self-assertion and braggadocio. Their music is now commonplace at sports events, deeply tied with masculine ritual. They represent something with deep appeal, which opened the floodgates for sustained interest — and then the film found itself in the midst of a populist-vs-critics battle that made it a cause for some moviegoers. This aided “Rhapsody” immeasurably: It’s one of the worst-reviewed films ever to receive a Best Picture nomination, let alone a major win like Best Actor.

Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman from Paramount Pictures.

“Rocketman”

David Appleby/Paramount Pictures

“Rhapsody” was much bigger than prior rock-star biopics, dwarfing prior champion “The Doors,” which made nearly $74 million adjusted; it’s possible that “Rocketman” will also beat that record. Does two successful films in a few months’ time mean all has changed? That’s the risk producers will have to determine, and it’s tempting: There’s potentially instant appeal to millions of fans, as well as the possibility of awards bait.

Of course, none of that can replace the need for dramatic tension, or a story arc with heroes and villains. And truthfully, many performers aren’t that interesting apart from their work, or easy for actors to replicate.

There has never been a breakout Beatles biofilm, nor one about the Rolling Stones. Brian Wilson biopic “Love & Mercy” was a specialized success. It’s hard to imagine a saga with more potential than Janis Joplin, but now nearly a half century removed its time might have passed, and the failure to realize a project speaks loudly about how complicated it is.

Perhaps the key elements that tie “Rhapsody” and “Rocketman” is, at their core, their leads delivered bravura performances and dynamic portrayals of live performances. Smart producers will recognize that, more often than not, these circumstances aren’t typical.

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