Berlin: Music Biopics Look for a 'Bohemian Rhapsody' Boost

Courtesy of Alex Bailey/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
'Bohemian Rhapsody'

From films about David Bowie to Celine Dion, dealmakers at the European Film Market are on the hunt for musical biopics that can hit the high notes of the Queen blockbuster ($830 million in global box office — and counting).

Independent film companies, under pressure to ensure the show must go on, are taking heart from the breakthrough success of Bohemian Rhapsody, hoping the film’s $830 million global box office take will spur buyers to sign big checks for new music biopics.

New Line’s recent $15 million acquisition of Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light — a tale of teenage awakening told through the music of Bruce Springsteen — certainly makes it look like anyone with a pop music tale in this market will be doing all right. But will the new wave of music dramas prove to be the champions of the world, or will they bite the dust?

Independent buyers looking for the next cinematic earworm certainly have a lot to choose from at this year’s European Film Market. The pop projects on offer range from I Am Woman, a biopic of Australian singer and activist Helen Reddy that marks the feature debut of documentarian Unjoo Moon (The Zen of Bennett), which Westend is selling; to Gaumont’s big-budget French drama The Power of Love, inspired by and featuring the music of Canadian diva Celine Dion; to Gabriel Range’s Stardust, a look at David Bowie’s legendary 1971 U.S. tour, with Beast actor Johnny Flynn playing the British rock legend and Film Constellation selling.

“Music films are hot right now,” admits one European buyer, noting anticipation of Paramount’s upcoming Elton John film Rocketman — with Kingsman star Taron Egerton as the artist formally known as Reginald Dwight — is further stoking the market. But many warn it may be difficult for the current crop of music biopics to recreate Bohemian Rhapsody’s box office magic.

What made that movie work, argue many buyers, is both Queen’s original music — fans in Japan, where Bohemian Rhapsody grossed more than $100 million, turned the film into an opportunity to do karaoke sing-along screenings — and the decision to recast the flamboyant, bisexual life of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury as a feel-good, PG-ready celebration of pop success. The indie approach to music biopics tend to slant towards more challenging, and darker, versions of a musician’s personal mythology. And some — such as the Bowie film Stardust — are handicapped by not having access to the hit songs. “Pretty certain nobody has been granted music rights for ANY biopic,” David Bowie’s son, the filmmaker Duncan Jones, wrote on Twitter, after news of the project broke. “As it stands, this movie won’t have any of Dad’s music in it and I can’t imagine that changing. If you want to see a biopic without his music or the family’s blessing, that’s up to the audience.”

“The Celine Dion biopic is going to be in French, so it could be a good title for the International market but for English-speaking territories may be a challenge due to the language,” notes Gianluca Chakra, managing director of Dubai-based distributor Front Row Filmed Entertainment. “Same thing with the David Bowie one, Stardust [which] could probably be compared to (the 2009 John Lennon biopic) Nowhere Boy, which didn't have the music cleared and could take a toll on its publicity and theatrical release. So it could be a good ultra-indie circuit release.”

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3 INDIE MUSIC FILMS HOPING FOR A RHAPSODIC RESPONSE

I Am Woman
Westend’s biopic of Aussie singer Helen Reddy has been generating strong interest from buyers. Aussie actress Tilda Cobham-Hervey (The Kettering Incident) plays Reddy.

The Power of Love
This French-language drama, inspired by the life of Celine Dion — and featuring her songs — is Gaumont’s big Berlin title this year. Valerie Lemercier (Avenue Montaigne) will direct and star.

Stardust
Beast star Johnny Flynn is set to play a young David Bowie in this 1971-set biopic from Film Constellation, but buyers could balk at the project’s lack of the rock icon’s music.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 9 daily issue at the Berlin International Film Festival.