Rock and Roll’s Slow Embrace Of Musicals

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Rocketman, the “musical fantasy” loosely based on Elton John’s life, hits theatres this month. The film bounces between recounting events in John’s life and musical numbers of some of his biggest hits, complete with choreography and fantastical special effects.

Both on- and off-stage, musicals and music movies based off of a rock star’s career are popping up more than ever. Jagged Little Pill, the Broadway musical based on Alanis Morissette’s landmark album, hits the stage this November. Sharp Dressed Man, a musical featuring the tunes of ZZ Top, is slated to hit Las Vegas next year. Even David Byrne will bring his theatrical American Utopia tour to a Broadway run.

And that’s just the stage. Movies are also taking the catalogue works of pivotal artists and transforming the classic songs into new narratives.

Yesterday imagines a world without The Beatles and hearing those songs for the first time. Blinded By The Light follows a teen’s life that is changed the moment he hears Bruce Springsteen.

So where did this shift in accepting musicals (and imagining what they could look like beyond The Wizard of Oz or Cats) take place?

Mealoaf’s “Bat Ouf Of Hell: The Musical” has had a successful run in multiple cities since premiering in 2017, including a New York run later this year. After its November 2018 debut at theatres, Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody has earned over $900 million at the international box office. While not a traditional musical, its rendition of Live Aid lasts for over 15 minutes and closes the curtain on the film with a reinterpretation of iconic performance footage.

The end of the ’10s means there has been entire generation gap (in some instances, two) between the fans who remember when these landmark artists were popular, versus their kids who might recognize a song or two from their parent’s records.

As much as the music speaks for itself, a theatrical event adds an emotional weight that’s much easier to unpack. The title track for “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the most streamed song from the 20th century, and this was no doubt propelled by the movie’s success in bridging the gap between old and new fans.

In the case of Elton John, the timing couldn’t be more perfect: he’s currently on a multi-year farewell tour, has recently released a new Diamonds compilation as well as two cover projects featuring younger artists like Ed Sheeran and Alessia Cara. His story is connecting with fans of all ages, and Rocketman will give those young and old a chance to indulge in his magic, even if they can’t get to a concert.

Whereas a musical can be intimidating to a casual theatergoer who may not grasp the showbiz tunes or turn their nose up at the stereotypical flashiness of Broadway, injecting a soundtrack with familiar music makes it much more accessible. It’s way easier to convince a rock fan to go see something they recognize from cruising the radio dial versus an over-the-top vocal acrobatic showcase.

In the world where streaming dominates physical sales and digital downloads, it’s hard to escape a music-based movie or play without tapping your toes and wanting to hear the songs again. Sure, they might have gotten your money through a ticket, but producers are also betting on a long-term effect where you’ll continue to listen to the tunes long after the curtain closes. The Dirt, Motley Crue’s biopic exclusive to Netflix, saw the band’s Apple Music streaming numbers increase by 1,081% the month after its release.

Will this be a long-term trend, or will the fad oversaturate and burn out music fans? It’s still too early to tell, but don’t expect this to be the last crop of biopic and musical announcements.

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