Tony Black on the saga of the Freddie Mercury biopic and the war of words between Sacha Baron Cohen and Brian May…
The biopic of Freddie Mercury, the legendary Queen front man who died of AIDS in 1991, is shaping up to be one of the greatest lost film projects of the modern age. Surely a slam dunk of a success waiting to happen, with it’s tale of glam rock excess, forbidden sexuality, celebrity stardom and the ravages of a well-publicised disease, the film has Oscar written all over it for almost certainly the man playing Mercury, at the very least. Yet the movie remains elusive, and battle lines between Queen and the man everyone thought would be Freddie grew wider this week as Brian May launched a scathing rebuke to Sacha Baron Cohen’s recent assertions he left the project because Queen wanted to secure their legacy.
Baron Cohen, to many almost too perfect a casting choice, left the project in July 2013 after years of lying in wait. This March he gave a candid interview to US shock jock Howard Stern where he accused someone in the band—he wouldn’t say who—of wanting to protect the band’s legacy rather than deliver a ‘warts’n’all’ portrayal of Freddie’s life. That certain someone could be Queen guitarist May, who in an interview with the Daily Mail hit back by calling the comedy star an “arse” who went off and told “untruths” about what happened in their long-time creative process trying to get the film off the ground. “Why would he go away and say that we didn’t want to make a gritty film?” asked May. “Are we the kind of people who have ever ducked from the truth? I don’t think so.”
So what really happened? And why does the life and times of Freddie Mercury remain a bizarrely elusive cinematic experience?
The project first started gaining traction in Hollywood in 2010 when Baron Cohen became attached, the story reputedly set to trace the years leading up to Queen’s appearance at the Live Aid concert in 1985. “Freddie Mercury was an awe-inspiring performer,” co-producer Graham King said in a statement. “So with Sacha in the starring role coupled with Peter (Morgan)’s screenplay and the support of Queen, we have the perfect opportunity to tell the real story behind their success.” By all accounts, Baron Cohen wanted to make a project about the amazing stories about Freddie Mercury and his life. “The guy was wild,” he told Stern. “There are stories of little people walking around parties with plates of cocaine on their heads!”. It appears he wanted to depict the drug-fuelled, hedonistic side of Mercury’s life before building toward the singer’s tragic death. Under the stewardship of Sony & King’s GK Films and Robert de Niro on producing duties, it looked in secure hands with Baron Cohen bringing in esteemed writer Peter Morgan to develop the script, and courting directors such as Stephen Frears, David Fincher and The Danish Girl’s Tom Hooper to helm.
His departure from the project raised eyebrows, with the usual ‘creative differences’ cited, and a few months later in September 2013 Queen’s drummer Roger Taylor suggested the Ali G actor was pushed rather than walked because they wanted people to be “moved” by the film. As he told NME. “We felt Sacha wasn’t right in the end. We didn’t want it to be a joke.” Did they consider Baron Cohen’s suggestion about cocaine-shovelling midgets indicative that he was intending to make the kind of edgy, controversy-baiting pastiche he’s known for with Borat or The Dictator? That seems at odds with bringing in talent like Morgan, known more for projects like The Queen than boorish comedy, or serious helmsmen such as Fincher or Hooper. May followed up from Taylor by telling the Daily Mirror that Baron Cohen was too famous to play the flamboyant singer. “He’s very much a style and a character. I think that he would have been very distracting.”
Peter Morgan, who left the project alongside Baron Cohen, himself told the BBC that the entire film was “probably not going to happen” now Baron Cohen had departed, losing it’s bankable star over the difference in tone both sides wanted. But what *was* that tone? Edgy, gritty and powerful? Or a family friendly stroll through the highs and lows of Queen?
Subsequently the casting rumours went into overdrive. Daniel Radcliffe quickly shot down suggestions he was taking on the role, while Dominic Cooper was reputedly circling the role. For some time, following his success in the 007 franchise and TV shows such as London Spy, Ben Whishaw appears to have been both the odds on favourite and courted by Queen themselves as their ideal choice, described by May as “fabulous, a real actor,” while The Theory of Everything writer Anthony McCarten has been drafted in to re-tool the script off the back of his Oscar nomination for the Stephen Hawking biopic. The title, reputedly, will be ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. No deal exists however according to Deadline with Whishaw as yet, and no director is officially attached. Dexter Fletcher signed to direct at one point, but left citing those old ‘creative differences’ with King in 2014, and may indeed end up having the last laugh given his recent success with his Eddie the Eagle biopic.
The big question is: who do we believe here? Who is accurate in the grand scheme of why Sacha Baron Cohen won’t seemingly portray a man many would have considered him born to play. Did Baron Cohen leave, as he attests, because Queen wanted a film that incorporated Freddie’s death as part of a legacy portrayal of their rock greatness? Or, as Brian May states, the band decided Baron Cohen wasn’t right for the role “for very good reasons, which will become apparent if you watch what he’s done recently.” Ouch.
Either way, if the project ever does emerge fully from Development Hell, we may always be left wondering quite what Sacha Baron Cohen may have done with a rare, serious, dramatic and unforgettable role. Ironically, the fact he never got to play Freddie Mercury could be what most people remember about the entire thing. Time, it appears, will tell…