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Why Queen Was, and Still Is, Even Bigger Than ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

For anyone paying attention to the band's tour grosses or synchs, the film's nearly $200 million gross in the U.S. shouldn't be a huge surprise.

Bohemian Rhapsody” is, by any measure, gargantuan. It’s at the $195 million mark at the U.S. box office and just got a turbo boost heading toward the magic $200M mark, with a post-Golden Globes expansion back into 1,300 theaters set for Friday, including a new “sing-along” version set for more than 750 screens. Its foreign grosses sit at $553 million. That’s big — bigger than the robot on the cover of “News of the World.” Bigger than Brian May’s stacks of Vox amps. Bigger than Rami Malek’s dentures. Big, we tell you.

But you know what’s even more behemoth than “Bohemian”? Queen.

Maybe that seems like an obvious point, but maybe not. There is a fair amount of myth-making in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” as detractors focused on ways in which the story departs from the historical record have pointed out. But there are some myths around the film itself, and one big one is that the movie somehow put the band back on the map. There are those who can’t imagine even the most popular musicians in the world being terribly relevant unless they’re being legitimized by the movies or television — let’s call them medium-ists — which results in a false narrative developing about Hollywood raising a moribund band from the dead. The other day I even ran into someone who said that no one should care about the complaint that the film short-changes some of the band members because “no one could name anyone but Freddie Mercury anyway.” If classic rock is one big background din in your mind, maybe it’s easy to look at the grosses and say, “Who knew?” … and wonder if someone should be green-lighting “Styx: The Motion Picture.”

As a matter of fact, somebody probably should make a movie out of the Dennis DeYoung-Tommy Shaw wars, but on pure artistic merit, not because it’s going to make $200 million. Maybe no other potential rock biopic could. What the upcoming “Rocketman” film could do is anyone’s guess, but there’s an argument to be made that Queen has loomed even larger in the rock imagination than Elton all these years, despite the frontman’s death putting a 28-years-and-counting crimp in their recording career.

The answer to “Who knew?” is: Anyone who’s seen or even heard much about the appeal of Queen + Adam Lambert on tour. (The plus-sign punctuation is theirs; they’ve been canny about how to make the “fill-in” singer’s name a full-disclosure addendum, even when it was Queen + Paul Rodgers for a spell in the 2000s.) The modern incarnation of the group doesn’t play a lot of gigs, but when they do, they usually play at 100 percent capacity. Pollstar has the numbers. The trade publication’s records show that from just 97 box-office reports they have on file for Queen + Adam Lambert from 2014 to the present — a relatively leisurely number of shows, indicating how little these veteran musicians need to tour — the group grossed $127 million. Their most recent arena show in Dublin, Ireland on July 8 brought in $1.3 million. Their most recent residency show at the more intimate Park Theatre in Las Vegas on Sept. 22 raked in $824,000, from a little more than 5,000 attendees. And you could ascribe these numbers to anticipation created by trailers for the movie, except for the fact that they were easily selling out Madison Square Garden on the east coast and the Forum on the west in 2014, back when a Queen biopic was just a twinkle (soon to turn to a tear) in Sacha Baron Cohen’s eye.

Yes, the film has boosted the bands profile immeasurably, and their agents would be foolish not to have at least tested the waters for a Dodger Stadium or Rose Bowl-sized show. But the fact is, Queen was always big, and it’s the pictures that got bigger to meet them (to mis-paraphrase Norma Desmond).

And fans don’t just come to honor Mercury. Brian May was arguably always almost as big a draw for the rock crowd, and a smaller but sizable contingent — hand raised here — would walk away disgruntled if Roger Taylor did not take his spotlight moment to sing “I’m in Love With My Car.” But in former “American Idol” king Lambert, the surviving members have found the perfect balance of foil: someone who’s part nimbly operatic impressionist, part flamboyant-in-a-different-way draw in his own right. Mercury is obviously irreplaceable, and also, in a very practical way, replaceable — and of the maybe half-dozen or fewer people in the world you could imagine are well known and gaudy and huge-voiced enough to fill that role, Queen picked one of them. It is a happy fate that did not befall the Doors, Nirvana or any other loss-stricken mega-band you could think of. It also did not hurt that they waited a decent interval to soldier on.

And during that decent interval, there was licensing. Lawdy, was there licensing. There should perhaps be an asterisk put on claims for Queen’s enduring popularity for a fade of sorts in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but any lull ended in 1992 with the headbanging sequence in “Wayne’s World,” and then it was off to a day at the races. Prior to that, beyond Mercury’s illness-based fade from public view before his death in 1991, there were the repercussions of some more synthetically inclined late-period albums that left the group’s rock ‘n’ roll base cold. And, contrary to what the movie maintains and conventional wisdom has adopted as gospel, Queen’s Live Aid performance in 1985 did not change the world or even get universally hailed as something that obviously eclipsed anything else that transpired that day. There was a bit of reputation damage from the disco-forward years (except maybe in the UK, where even a polka album would have stood in the way of their being a sacred totem). But once Mike Myers literally flipped his wig, the world was reminded not just of the greatness of “Bohemian Rhapsody’s” multiple middle-eights, but that there was such things as “Queen II” and “Sheer Heart Attack.” And all the love kicked back in.

Especially among music supervisors. A look at their list of credits in films and TV shows this is no fresh resurgence. Edgar Wright wins the Most Valuable Director award among Queen fans for using “Don’t Stop Me Now” and “You’re My Best Friend” in “Shaun of the Dead” and “The Ring (Hypnotic Seduction of Dale)” in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” before getting to “Brighton Rock” as a car-chase orgasm in “Baby Driver.” But few supervisors or directors have been able to resist the temptation to cast “We Are the Champions” for triumphant moments, real or mocked, or “Another One Bites the Dust” for scenes in which someone or something is biting the dust, or “Under Pressure” when a character is… wait for it… under pressure. There are less obvious tunes that found appropriate homes, like “Moon Cycle” for Bill Nye the Science Guy. “I Want It All” accompanied a Trump documentary all the way back in the ‘90s. You heard and loved (or were distracted by) their music in “Married With Children,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Big Bang Theory,” “Grand Theft Auto IV,” “King of Queens,” “The Sopranos,” “South Park,” “Iron Man 2,” “Cold Case” and “Stranger Things,” among untold dozens and probably hundreds of placements.

And the covers. Panic! at the Disco has had a small side career with their “Bohemian” cover, as featured on tour and in “Suicide Squad”; “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” has been recorded by Michael Buble, Dwight Yoakam, Fantasia, Diana Ross and the Chipmunks; “Weird Al” has gotten to both “Bohemian Polka” and “Another One Rides the Bus”; Metallica won the 1991 Grammy for “Stone Cold Crazy,” a year after true Queen-loving pioneer Trent Reznor did an industrial version of “Get Down Make Love.” There is a Queen song for every occasion, including “Thank God It’s Christmas” (a song so ubiquitous in Europe it inspired Sparks to record “Thank God It’s Not Christmas”).

All of which is to say: Let’s not kid ourselves. Hollywood has been good to Queen, but in looking for credit where credit is due, it’s clear that, in this instance, Queen was good to Hollywood. The difference may be boiled down to only half of the nation’s marching bands having a Queen medley in their set prior to 2018, versus about 90 percent of them now (hi, Ohio State). The passing on among generations is a given thing, because children demonstrably like Queen: Who doesn’t respond to those stacked vocals, as something cartoonish, if you’re a kid, or symphonic, if you’re a tad older? As strong as it is at helping instill mania, in the overall scheme of things, the movie is like a booster shot in the fat bottom of a group that was never in danger of going away in any of our lifetimes.

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