‘Bohemian Rhapsody’—and the Music Movie—Is the Champion

There was a familiar sight at the box office this weekend: a movie with musical inclinations dominating in its debut. This time around, it was 20th Century Fox’s Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, which came away with a strong $50 million domestic debut, according to Box Office Mojo. The take was the second-highest domestic opening for a musical biopic, behind only Straight Outta Compton’s $60.2 million in 2015. If Straight Outta Compton is any indication, Bohemian Rhapsody is looking at a domestic haul in the $150 million range—which would be an undeniably successful run for a film that had a $52 million production budget and more than a few reasons for tempered expectations.

The lead-up to Bohemian Rhapsody was, in a word, messy. The movie had been in development for more than eight years, with Sacha Baron Cohen originally set to play Queen’s iconic frontman, Freddie Mercury—though Cohen left due to reported creative clashes with the studio, with Cohen aspiring for a more adult-oriented focus and the studio hoping to keep the project family-friendly (the movie ultimately garnered a PG-13 rating). And then, with just a couple of weeks left in production, original director Bryan Singer was fired by the studio. Singer and Rami Malek, who plays Mercury (with the aid of some prosthetic buck teeth), reportedly frequently clashed on set, with the director going so far as to throw objects at Malek, and Singer failed to return to the production after the crew’s Thanksgiving break. What’s more, Singer has long been a controversial figure in Hollywood; in the lead-up to the movie, the director preemptively refuted an Esquire article that detailed sexual assault allegations that had been made against him previously.

In the months before the release of Bohemian Rhapsody, the movie was also criticized for its handling—or lack of handling—of Mercury’s sexuality. Questions arose after the release of the first trailer for the film, which appeared to avoid depicting Mercury’s sexuality with any substantive detail. Promoting Bohemian Rhapsody, Malek also remained ambiguous about Mercury’s sexuality. As reviews started to come in, it became clear that the wishy-washy promotion just reflected the film’s portrayal of the frontman, which is as straight-washed as it is just confusingly hazy. (Malek had a rough lead-up to the release in general: He also drew the ire of Stan Twitter for coldly rejecting a fan’s request for a video. Thankfully, he did eventually make nice on Ellen.)

Yet despite all of these issues, Bohemian Rhapsody was a hit with audiences, nabbing a coveted “A” rating from Cinemascore. The appeal is easy to see: The movie leans into the band’s most iconic songs, so if you go see Bohemian Rhapsody for the big-screen treatment of some all-time great rock anthems like “We Will Rock You” and, well, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” you’ll come away satisfied. That the movie lives up to these moments mostly compensates for its many other faults; and even the harshest Bohemian Rhapsody reviews have taken time to single out the stellar performance by Malek, who could be well on his way to an Oscar nomination.

With Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s Oscar hopeful A Star Is Born continuing to chug along—the movie made another $11.1 million this weekend, per Box Office Mojo, taking its domestic total to $165 million—musical dramas have been thriving in recent years at the box office, with arguably the biggest musically-inclined film of the year still on the way. Disney will conclude its year with the December 19 release of Mary Poppins Returns, the 50-plus-years-in-the-making sequel to the Julie Andrews–Dick Van Dyke classic, with Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda taking over the lead roles. It’s too early for qualitative box office projections for the movie, but c’mon: It’s a Mary friggin’ Poppins movie released around Christmas, costarring the guy who created Hamilton. It’s gonna be popular.

Hollywood may be dominated by the lucrative potential of superhero franchises and cinematic universes, but the allure of a good music-focused film—or even a mediocre one, like Bohemian Rhapsody—can’t be denied. We’re only two years removed from La La Land’s $150 million-plus domestic haul, while Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again rocked the summer, and Hugh Jackman’s The Greatest Showman was indeed putting on the greatest show for months at the start of 2018. While no genre is entirely immune to flopping at the box office, recent history suggests that making a movie with beloved music—or new, catchy music, aided by the talents of a bona fide pop star—is going to work out more often than it doesn’t. Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t special or a particularly good escape from reality on its own, but as part of a larger box office trend, it’s a champion.

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