Sacha Baron Cohen may be most widely known for buffoonish characters like Ali G and Borat, but as we’ve seen from time to time, there’s a really strong dramatic actor under all the penis jokes and socially awkward gags. Which is why I actually thought he was a great pick (the resemblance certainly helped) to lead a planned biopic focusing on Freddie Mercury, the legendary flamboyant singer/song writer of rock band Queen who passed away in 1991 as result of complications from contracting AIDS.
Unfortunately, Cohen eventually dropped out of the production, which as a result has since been stuck in development hell. But why did Cohen bail on what would have undoubtedly been the biggest dramatic role of his career? While on the Howard Stern Show (via The Playlist), Cohen revealed that surviving Queen band members Brian May and Roger Taylor (who were also producers on the film) were a bit too protective of Mercury’s – and the band’s – name, and preferred to not depict how things really happened.
“There are amazing stories about Freddie Mercury. The guy was wild. He was living an extreme lifestyle [of] debauchery. There are stories of little people with plates of cocaine on their heads walking around a party,” Cohen said, before adding that was exactly the kind of thing the surviving members of Queen didn’t want depicted in their biopic. “It [becomes] a less interesting movie, but you’ve got to remember that they want to protect their legacy as a band, and they want it to be about Queen. And I fully understand that.”
Glossing over the messier details about a beloved figure is mostly par for the course when it comes to these types of biopics, so it really should not have come as a surprise to Cohen that May and Taylor wanted to leave out some of Mercury’s wilder moments. But what was genuinely surprising though was the planned narrative structure for the movie.
“[After] my first meeting, I should never have carried on because a member of the band —I won’t say who— said, ‘This is such a great movie, because such an amazing thing happens in the middle of the movie.’ I go, ‘What happens in the middle of the movie?’ He goes, ‘Freddie dies.’ I go, ‘So you mean it’s a bit like ‘Pulp Fiction,’ where the end is the middle and the middle is the end? That’s interesting.’ He goes, ‘No no no.’ So I said, ‘Wait a minute. What happens in the second half of the movie?’ And he said, ‘Well, we see how the band carries on from strength to strength.’ And I said, ‘Listen, not one person is going to see a movie where the lead character dies from AIDS and then you carry on to see [what happens to the band].”
Yeah, I don’t recall many successful movies where the central character dies halfway through and you end up with just the supporting cast for the rest of the running time. It seems that the band wanted the movie to be more about Queen than Mercury, a sentiment that Cohen echoes.
“I fully understand why Queen wanted to do this. If you’re in control of your rights of your life story, why wouldn’t you depict yourself as great as possible?”
These types of decisions though acted as quite the creative hurdle for this production, even for some of the most talented filmmakers around.
“They asked me to write the movie, but I said, ‘I don’t know how to write a biopic.’ So I got in Peter Morgan [‘The Queen’], [but] they didn’t like that. I brought in David Fincher who wanted to direct it, then Tom Hooper [‘The King’s Speech,’ ‘The Danish Girl’] —they were very specific about how they wanted to do it. But at the end of the day, it really was an artistic difference.”
Look, I’ve never been a movie producer, and you can call me crazy, but I would be inclined to think that if David Fincher or Tom Hooper offers you advice on how to make a movie, you take it. Even if you’re bloody Queen. As Cohen so succinctly puts it: “Brian May is an amazing musician, but he’s not a great movie producer.”
Last Updated: March 10, 2016