When Bohemian Rhapsody bagged four Academy Awards in February, fans of the rock band Queen were delighted. For them, it wasn’t just another Hollywood movie, but the biopic of Freddie Mercury, the singer they had idolised for years. The fact that Rami Malek, who played the title role, took home the Best Actor award enhanced their joy.
A Queen revival had definitely taken place. But there was more to come. According to the half-yearly report released by Nielsen Music, the film’s soundtrack was the biggest selling album in North America during the period. The Queen Greatest Hits 1 record was No 2. The band sold 731,000 albums – a figure higher than any other rock act – and had 1.3 million downloads, the Nielsen report said.
Then there was Elton John biopic Rocketman. Released in May, it did not create the same kind of buzz as Bohemian Rhapsody, though a section of critics and movie fans felt it was a better film, and praised the way the songs were knitted into the script and choreographed.
The Rocketman music did have a positive impact on British artiste. According to Billboard, there was an 83 percent increase in sales of his 2017 greatest hits compilation Diamonds. Four songs – ‘Rocketman’, ‘Tiny Dancer’, ‘Bennie and the Jets’ and ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ – had re-entered the Billboard Hot Rocks 100 charts.
American rock/ metal band Motley Crue was another example. Though it catered to a select audience, the soundtrack of its biopic The Dirt topped the iTunes All Genres chart and was No 10 on the Billboard 200. In the US, there was a sudden interest in the band’s older albums.
Clearly, there is a trend here. The soundtrack of a musician or band’s biopic can definitely lead to their return to the charts and help bag some awards-related glory. And it’s not only the case with biopics. The soundtracks of fictional musicals have done well in the past couple of years too.
The music of The Greatest Showman, whose tunes are composed by American songwriting duo Pasek and Paul, has been ruling the Billboard charts for a while. A Star Is Born had a huge hit with the song ‘Shallow’, sung by the lead cast Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. In 2017, La La Land, with music by Justin Hurwitz, won the Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best Original Song (‘City Of Stars’ by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone).
The latest Billboard charts narrate an interesting story, as Bohemian Rhapsody is No 3, A Star Is Born is No 4 and The Greatest Showman is No 6. Falling from its No 6 peak, Rocketman now stands at No 22. Interestingly, Korean pop band, BTS is at No 2 for its soundtrack of the mobile game BTS World, but that’s a totally different segment unrelated to the movies.
Not all soundtracks have touched gold, though. The music for ‘Yesterday’, a film that involved a hypothetical situation of life without the Beatles, didn’t lead to any revival of Beatlemania or sudden spurt in sales of the band. The nostalgia was temporary, though audiences admired the film’s performances and humour.
Sadly, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’s outstanding tunes in Bolden, a biopic of pioneering jazz legend Buddy Bolden, went largely unheard. For those interested in old-school jazz, the music was simply phenomenal.
At the moment, it’s early to say whether the original soundtrack (OST) of Gurinder Chadha’s forthcoming Blinded By The Light will have a positive impact on singer Bruce Springsteen’s catalogue. Industry pundits feel it will since it has 12 songs by the icon, including the hits ‘Dancing In The Dark’, ‘Born To Run’, ‘Hungry Heart’ and ‘The River’ – everything except ‘Born In The USA’. There’s also the English-Punjabi song ‘For You My Love’ composed by A.R. Rahman.
Blinded By The Light is about how the life of a London-based teenager of Pakistani origin was transformed after he was exposed to songs by ‘The Boss’. The music is already out on streaming platforms, and reviews have been positive. Expectations are that Springsteen’s earlier albums, from which the songs have been taken, will be back in business.
Over the years, there have been plenty of music biopics and fictional musicals. The early ones went as far back as the 1934 Alfred Hitchcock movie Waltzes From Vienna, which focused on how Austrian composer Johann Strauss Jr came up with his iconic waltz ‘Blue Danube’. It may sound impossible but yes, Hitchcock did dabble in a musical subject.
In 1945, Robert Alda played American composer George Gershwin in Rhapsody In Blue. Over the years, musicals like The Sound Of Music, My Fair Lady, Saturday Night Fever and Grease produced songs that are hummed even today. Their record sales were exceptional, and their numbers were learned by heart. For rock fans, Almost Famous captured the story of a band’s journey, using songs by the rock royalty.
The list of biopics includes Doors (based on Jim Morrison of the Doors), Coal Miner’s Daughter (on country singer Loretta Lynn), Amadeus (on composer Mozart), Bird (on jazz great Charlie Parker), La Vie En Rose (on French star Edith Piaf), Walk The Line (on singer Johnny Cash) and Ray (on the legendary Ray Charles). Most of them bagged their Oscars or Golden Globes, earned their plaudits and even created a fresh bunch of fans. But they didn’t result in a spurt in album sales like Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman. When Magnasound released the Doors OST in India in 1991, sales were average, though a few people picked up cassettes of the Doors albums Morrison Hotel and LA Woman.
Now, the next year or two promise to be hugely exciting. In the pipeline are films, on singers Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Bob Marley, Carole King, Madonna, Boy George, Celine Dion, and Amy Winehouse, besides conductor Leonard Bernstein. A feature on the John Lennon-Yoko Ono romance is under preparation.
While that sounds super, it’s important that the labels having rights to their music work closely with the film’s producers. So far, efforts to revive back catalogue after a biopic’s release have been rather casual and arbitrary.
Meticulous planning seems to be largely missing, and whatever sales happened was the result of the sudden demand from listeners. In India, one hardly saw any pre-launch build-up or post-release theme nights, barring a few tribute concerts and vinyl listening sessions where the labels weren’t involved.
Maybe there’s a lesson to be learnt. There’s a long line-up of biopics in the offing, and artistes like Presley, Marley and Madonna have the brand potential to sell a fresh round of records or attract huge downloads and streams. it will be interesting to see who all will emulate the Bohemian Rhapsody example.