Photo/IllutrationQueen fans at a Nov. 30 screening of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in Osaka’s Kita Ward. Kenji Nishimoto, right foreground, poses in an outfit similar to Freddie Mercury's costume from a 1986 live concert. “When Freddie died, I was so sorry I had never been to his live concert while he was alive,” the 56-year-old company employee from Joyo, Kyoto Prefecture, said. “But I can get a surrogate experience from the movie.” (Kazushige Kobayashi)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Queen, at its height, promised, "We Will Rock You." And that is precisely what “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a biopic on the life of Freddie Mercury, frontman for the British rock band, is doing in Tokyo.

The film, a runaway box office success, generated 1.3 billion yen ($11.5 million) in the first 10 days after its release. Global revenue has already exceeded 40 billion yen.

Directed by Bryan Singer, “Bohemian Rhapsody” portrays the birth pains of Queen's best-loved songs, including the eponymous 1975 number that gives the flick its name. It also covers Freddie’s private life and his discord with fellow band members.

Singer made his name with films like "The Usual Suspects," the "X-Men" series and the World War II historical thriller "Valkyrie."

The excitement builds as the story unfolds to the accompaniment of Queen’s songs, like "We Are the Champions" and "Another One Bites the Dust."

But what makes it all so special are the screenings billed as "cheering" sessions that allow audiences to sing along, clap their hands in time with the music or simply stomp their feet during the more raucous numbers.

More than 100 theaters have featured similar special showings, which display subtitles for the catchy lyrics on screen so audiences can immerse themselves in the moment.

Queen formed in London in 1970, and its charismatic singer died in 1991 at the age of 45 due to complications from AIDS.

Given that Queen's heyday was three decades ago, it's not surprising that audiences generally comprise middle-aged and older people who have often just finished work.

That was certainly the case at a sing-along screening at a multiplex in Tokyo’s Hibiya, a stone's throw from the posh Ginza district, on the evening of Nov. 16, even though other regular screenings were also billed.

A reporter who went was braced for audience members to burst out into song from the outset, and was surprised that nobody did.

The film opens with the popular song, "Somebody to Love," complete with subtitles.

Initially bashful, members of the audience seemed to be watching how others were going to behave.

When “We Will Rock You” started blaring, the theater reverberated with people stomping their feet and clapping out loud, all fixtures of when Queen performed the song live.

The excitement climaxed during scenes faithfully reproducing Queen's performance at Live Aid, a legendary 1985 charity event held in London. Audience members raised their hands and synched their voices with Freddie’s as if to become one with the heaving crowd on screen.

Some began weeping as they sang. The applause went on long after the show closed.

“It was like being in a group karaoke session. It made me nostalgic for the time when we were all in junior high school,” said a 49-year-old office worker, still excited long after the show that he attended with friends around his age. “I didn’t feel like I was watching a movie.”

A 41-year-old woman, who arrived with handmade decorative fans with the word “Freddie,” said it was the second time she had seen the film.

“I wasn’t a Queen fan before, but when I watched the movie for the first time, I realized I knew all the songs,” she said. “I was deeply moved by Freddie’s life, so this time around, I came here to cheer for him. I had a sense of being one with the people around me.”

An official involved in promoting the movie in Japan noted that box office revenue for the film was greater in the second weekend after its release and that the audience base had spread to include younger people, including twentysomethings.


So what is it that resonates with audiences who see the movie?

Movie critic Naoto Mori noted that the 2009 hit “Avatar,” directed by James Cameron of "Titanic" fame, was produced in 3-D format, heightening the experience of audience members.

In that vein, he said that “Bohemian Rhapsody” offers audiences an opportunity to let their hair down and experience a different level of excitement.

By the same token, the popularity of “Baahubali 2: The Conclusion,” a dark-horse 2017 hit from India, was due to audiences being exhorted to shout out the name of the main protagonist during screenings.

A movie produced by video-on-demand giant Netflix Inc. won the top prize at this year's Venice International Film Festival, offering an example of how audiences of movies with a strong storyline are gravitating to viewing them online.

Watching a film on the big screen at a movie theater allows audiences to experience different sensations in different settings, just like with live concerts, by drawing on the latest advances in audiovisual technologies, Mori said.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is way more than a mere biopic. It aims to immerse audiences in arena-style live concert settings that Queen was famous for, as exemplified by the importance attached to the “Live Aid” scenes, Mori added.

“Some find fault with the film for being superficial in getting to the heart of Freddie'a inner feelings, but it is in fact using a plain narrative on purpose to present the whole story at a stretch, just like in a work of opera,” the movie critic said.

“At the same time, the work has a solid, central theme, which is about Freddie’s angst as a minority, against a background of racial discrimination and a bias against gays. That really touches the heart when the scenes are accompanied by Queen's songs.”