Donald Clarke: The tills are alive with the sound of musicals

Success of ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ has studios trawling the vinyl vaults

Rami Malek  brings depth and darkness to what could have been a superficial enterprise

Rami Malek brings depth and darkness to what could have been a superficial enterprise

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One theme bosses aside all others when we ponder the Irish box-office figures for 2018. You can forget about the western. You can forget about the romantic comedy.

Of all the great Hollywood genres, it is the musical that has showed the most resilience. The year’s highest-grossing film at time of writing is Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again with €5.4 million. A Star is Born is just behind with €5.1 million. Bohemian Rhapsody’s €2.8 million places it in the number seven spot, but, still playing well, it will surely rise a little higher than that.

Consider those first two results. The Abba sequel and the Gaga vehicle have each taken over €1 for every Irish citizen. (And I saw them both for free.)

The per capita figures are not so high elsewhere. Cinema is, in Ireland, still a place of entertainment for older people, and those films play well to middle-aged audiences. A Star is Born is the 21st highest-grossing film worldwide. Hindered by America’s disgraceful resistance to Abba, Mamma Mia! comes in at number 17. Bohemian Rhapsody scores best overall, with its $540 million (€475 million) taking it to number 12. 

It emerged this week that the studios are moving forward with the next phase of musicalisation

The “musical” remains the success story of the era. Add in the unexpected triumph of last year’s The Greatest Showman – whose soundtrack album remained at number one for months – and you have something approaching a phenomenon.

We placed “musical” within inverted commas to soothe purists. Neither A Star is Born nor Bohemian Rhapsody satisfies the traditional definition: actors spontaneously warbling to non-diegetic orchestration.

But the big numbers – Lady Gaga’s final triumphant bellow; the entire Live Aid set – are as vital to the relevant films’ appeal as were the corresponding set-pieces in Singin’ in the Rain or The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Let’s shake off those inverted commas. The musical is back.

Singalong hits

There is one more test case to come. Next May, Taron Egerton stars as Elton John in Dexter Fletcher’s much-anticipated Rocketman. One can hardly imagine a more appropriate follow-up to Bohemian Rhapsody and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Like the former, it offers a biopic of a gay icon who helped define 1970s excess. Like the latter, it will feature some of the greatest singalong hits ever. Fletcher took over directorial duties from a scandal-locked (though still credited) Bryan Singer on Bohemian Rhapsody; so we know he has a handle on the genre.

Croc of ages: Taron Egerton as Elton John in ‘Rocketman’
Croc of ages: Taron Egerton as Elton John in ‘Rocketman’

It emerged this week that the studios are moving forward with the next phase of musicalisation. Disney was always going to include tunes in films such as Mary Poppins Returns or the Lion King remake. The trickier scheme is to get people dancing to the sort of well-remembered chart hits that juiced up the Abba romp and the Queen extravaganza. 

You can bet that some studio is negotiating with the David Bowie estate right now

Universal Pictures think they’ve happened upon one promising strategy. On Monday we learnt that the company had acquired the rights to a number of songs from Prince’s back catalogue and was developing a film around them. The dreaded “insiders” whispered that Universal was going more for a jukebox musical (the Mamma Mia! route) than a biopic (the Bohemian Rhapsody approach).

Given that Purple Rain is already an unofficial semi-biopic, that seems a sensible move. Good luck structuring an amusing production number around the famously gloomy Sign o’ the Times.

We won’t see that for a year or two. For now the attention is all on Rocketman. Rumours suggest the picture will premiere out of competition at Cannes. If it proves a hit then the search will continue for another heritage act to exploit for larks and bucks. 

Naked camp

There are fewer obvious contenders than you might initially suspect. Mamma Mia! and Bohemian Rhapsody got by on a combination of naked camp and big, big tunes. The key songs are all mainstream pop hits. Furrowed rock acts such as Led Zeppelin, The Who or even our own U2 don’t deliver those things the way Elton John does. Keep in mind that, for all its ubiquity, Where the Streets Have no Name only got to number 13 in the US charts. U2 don’t deal in the unfettered fun you get from Crocodile Rock or Dancing Queen.

You can bet that some studio is negotiating with the David Bowie estate right now. The early hits could generate a satisfactory entertainment, but I’m betting Bowie Inc is holding out for an established auteur to suggest a monochrome art film on the Berlin years. The Beatles’ pitch was queered with Julie Taymor’s dire, pretentious Across the Universe from 2007. The Spice Girls don’t have enough good songs (sue me!). Oasis never broke America.

There’s only one option that makes undeniable sense. If I were Madonna’s people I’d strike a very hard bargain indeed. Expect Like a Prayer for Christmas 2020. 

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