Classic Rock Is Reanimating Summer 2019’s Movies

June 27, 2019, 6:27 PM UTC

It took producer Graham King nine years to get Bohemian Rhapsody off the ground, but after his 2018 Queen biopic raked in $903 million worldwide and earned Rami Malek an Oscar for his role as Freddie Mercury, makers of music-themed movies now have reason to be optimistic. This summer, a bumper crop of films draw inspiration from classic rock in the hopes that oldies are goodies when it comes to Elton John, The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, and folk-rock hit makers of Laurel Canyon.

Filmmaker Cameron Crowe, whose fondness for classic rock informed Almost Famous, Showtime series Roadies, and the upcoming David Crosby: Remember My Name documentary, believes audiences crave stories steeped in music from an earlier era. “The ’60s and ’70s are now perceived as a golden period for music, when there was maybe a little bit less white noise, a little less anger, a little more poetry and maybe a little more authenticity,” he tells Fortune.

“The right kind of biopic can give you real sense of what it was like to see these artists at their peak,” Crowe says. “It goes back to The Buddy Holly Story, when they quit trying to make a statement and just gave you the pure thrill of the artist. When you do that, people love it.”

The most fanciful of the retro rock bunch, Yesterday (opening Friday) relies on a charmingly outrageous premise: What if busker Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) woke up from a bicycle crash to discover that he’s the only one on the planet who remembers The Beatles? Jack, claiming Fab Four songs as his own, becomes the world’s biggest pop star despite advice from real-life pop star Ed Sheeran to change “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude.” Directed by Oscar-winner Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), the love story between Jack and his manager (Lily James) unspools against a backdrop of 15 Beatles tunes performed solo on guitar or piano by Patel. Yesterday producer Tim Bevan says, “The beauty and simplicity of those songs really shines through in this film, and one reason is that Danny decided: ‘As much as possible, let’s not put a band around this guy.’ We want it to feel like Jack’s singing these songs and people are hearing them through his lips for the first time.'”

When The Beatles broke up, Elton John took off. Fueled by fantastical recreations of his greatest hits, Rocketman (grossing $156 million since opening in May) follows John’s ascent from introverted musical prodigy to bedazzled show man as embodied by actor Taron Egerton. Rerecording mixer Mike Prestwood Smith blended Egerton’s actual voice with instrumental tracks assembled by Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin. “Mixing a musical like this you have to blur the boundary between reality and fantasy,” says Smith. “It’s not a straight up biopic because everything in Rocketman is designed to be seen from Elton John’s point of view rather than as a spectacle.”

One of Rocketman’s pivotal fantasy sequences takes place at L.A. music club the Troubadour, where an exhilarated John levitates during his breakthrough 1970 gig. Six years earlier in that same room, folkie Roger McGuinn formed The Byrds and effectively launched folk-rock as a pop music phenomenon when their electrified remake of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” topped the charts in 1965. McGuinn tells his tale in Echo in the Canyon (now in theaters), which chronicles the Laurel Canyon music scene that flourished between 1965 and 1967 in the bucolic hills above Hollywood’s Sunset Strip.

There, the Mamas and the Papas, Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield, and dozens of other musicians smoked pot, hung out, and hatched harmony-laden hits like “California Dreamin'” and “For What It’s Worth.” Director Andy Slater, the former Capitol Records CEO who made the documentary with producer-interviewer Jakob Dylan says, “It’s really about this age of innocence.”

Case in point: Michelle Phillips reminisces on camera about the time she dropped by Brian Wilson’s canyon home and discovered the Beach Boys leader playing the piano on a floor covered with sand. In the film, contemporary artists including Beck and Fiona Apple perform songs by the Canyon crowd that still hold up five decades after their inception. Slater says, “There’s something wonderful about that period when you look at the kindness between people sharing their creativity within bands and between neighbors, maybe before they realized there was so much at stake financially for everyone.”

David Crosby (center), jamming with Neil Young (l), Stephen Stills (r) and Tim Drummond (bass), during a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young concert at Texas Stadium, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas, August 31, 1974 .
© Joel Bernstein 1974. All rights reserved.

Laurel Canyon also serves as ground zero for David Crosby: Remember My Name (opening July 19). After being fired from the Byrds, the singer-songwriter co-founded Crosby, Stills & Nash, played Woodstock, and sold more than 43 million records with bandmates that later included Neil Young. But by 1986, Crosby had developed a $1,000-a-day drug habit that landed him in federal prison. Remember My Name chronicles Crosby’s rise, fall, and subsequent recovery through interviews, archival clips, and now-classic songs that continue to resonate beyond the baby boomer demographic. As producer-interviewer Crowe notes, “This [current] generation has its own music, but it also honors and samples the previous generation to the point where a guy like [Taylor Swift producer] Jack Antonoff can say David Crosby is one of his favorite artists.”

The seemingly inexhaustible Rolling Stones also make their way to the big screen this summer in The Quiet One (June 21, on demand June 28), named after the band’s original bass player Bill Wyman. Teamed with drummer Charlie Watts, Wyman anchored the rhythm section for all of the Stones’ legacy-defining records before formally quitting the group in 1993. Now 82, Wyman maintains a meticulously organized archive of home movies and memorabilia detailing 29 years of fan pandemonium, tragic deaths, and still-riveting rock music spearheaded by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Quiet One writer-director Oliver Murray says “I wanted Bill’s archive to become a metaphor for his brain, where each object on the shelf sparks a memory and has a story to tell about this young musician growing up in London to become a Rolling Stone.”

The music snippets embedded in The Quiet One continue to feel fresh despite their age, according to Murray. “There’s a purity to the music and also an element of nostalgia about this period when you had the voice of youth threatening the establishment,” he says.

And finally, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run plays a starring role in Blinded by the Light (opening Aug. 14). The semi-autobiographical movie dramatizes how the Boss’s 1975 masterpiece exerted life-changing impact on a U.K. teenager named Sarfraz Manzoor 12 years after its release.

Manzoor, who co-wrote the film, recalls: “Before I was introduced to the music of Springsteen, my musical diet was strictly Top 40 chart music—everything from Madonna and Michael Jackson to Pet Shop Boys and Culture Club. What was different about Springsteen was that his songs were about something. Instead of offering escape, they actively confronted the challenges of real life and offered clues about to how to conquer those challenges.”

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