The wave of upcoming superhero movies threatens to drown out most other cinema news – at least during the summer blockbuster season. We’re in the thick of that now, but as fall arrives, so do the awards-bait prestige films, with deceased musicians having proven one of the most enduring roles for actors eager to show off their range.
It’s been a couple of years since the announcement that Borat star Sacha Baron Cohen would be portraying Freddie Mercury, the iconic frontman for the great 70’s rock band Queen, in a biopic to be scripted by Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, the unrelated The Queen). Now, however, it seems that Baron Cohen has left the project, supposedly due to disagreements with the surviving Queen band members over the direction of the film.
Morgan’s story is said to follow the band through it’s formative years up to their famous Live Aid performance in 1985, which is still considered to be one of the greatest in rock & roll history. Mercury’s AIDS-related death in 1991 would apparently not be covered, and while the singer’s public acknowledgment that he had the disease (made just one day before his death) is said to have helped lift the stigma of AIDS from the public consciousness, his later days were not going to be the focus… Mercury’s homosexuality would presumably be glossed-over as well.
As reported by, Deadline a major reason for Cohen’s exit appears to be that while he wanted what sounds like an R-rated, warts-and-all approach to the story, the rest of the Queen – Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon – wanted something PG in tone, thus allowing a broader appeal.
Since the band members have final approval over the script and director (no one had officially signed on, but names like David Fincher, Stephen Frears and – more recently, Tom Hooper – were brought in, only to walk right back out), it appears that Cohen was not able to reconcile his ideas (an exploration of Mercury’s flamboyant persona and lifestyle) with that of the rest of the band.
Anyone who has seen Borat, Bruno, or The Dictator knows that Sacha Baron Cohen is uniquely gifted at playing out-sized personalities with little regard for social niceties. His charisma – and physical resemblance – made him an ideal choice. Plus, we learned that he can really sing from his scene-stealing turn as a rival barber to Johnny Deep in Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and he displayed real acting chops as the somewhat melancholy Station Inspector in Hugo.
With Jamie Foxx winning a Best Actor Oscar for his role as Ray Charles in Ray and Reese Witherspoon winning Best Actress for portraying Johnny Cash’s wife June Carter in Walk The Line, this could have been a ripe opportunity for Cohen to prove his own mettle in the awards arena. His turn as Freddie Mercury might have yielded something special, but now we’ll never know. Will this project ever leave the very early stages of pre-production? Will we end up with the safe, PG-version of this story no one outside of Queen seems to want? Expect news on this project to quickly sputter out if this remains the case.