I wish my brain functioned like a normal human brain but it does not. I often hear things that most brains would discard as useless information and I will dwell on them for weeks. A few years ago, while reading an article about a Queen biopic that was in its infancy, a quick throwaway line stuck out to my brain as the most interesting piece of information: Sacha Baron Cohen, who we all collectively recognize as Borat, was in talks to play Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. All other information in the article immediately became irrelevant. The world was going to have a multimillion dollar blockbuster with Borat Freddie Mercury. Jesus. When thinking about anything other than that fact, well, to quote Mercury himself: “Nothing really matters to me.” And to quote Cohen: “High fiiiive!”
Once a trailer for the film, titled Bohemian Rhapsody, finally surfaced years later starring not Cohen but Mr. Robot actor Rami Malek in the lead role, my dreams were dashed. I soon fell into an internet wormhole to learn how close this alternate Borat reality was in coming to pass. The answer is: It depends on whose version you hear. The way Cohen tells it, as he did on The Howard Stern Show, it was very close. Cohen told Stern that he worked on it for six years and had a specific vision for a gritty, warts-and-all depiction of Mercury, who died of AIDS in 1991.
“There are amazing stories about Freddie Mercury, crazy,” Cohen said. “The guy was living an extreme lifestyle—debauchery. There are stories of… little people with plates with cocaine on their heads walking around parties.”
He went on to say he brought in screenwriter Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen) and director David Fincher (The Social Network, Fight Club) to help achieve this vision of a dark film. Ultimately, though, creative clashes with the surviving Queen members made this pursuit difficult. Cohen said that one unnamed member of the band envisioned that in his softer version for the film, Mercury would die in the middle of story, with the third act portraying the band’s career after his death, which Cohen rightly said no one would watch.
“At the end of the day, it really was an artistic difference,” he told Stern. “They are a band. They want to protect their legacy of a band.”
The Bohemian Rhapsody camp’s account differs, though. Queen guitarist Brian May lashed back at Cohen’s account of the events in the press. “Sacha became an arse,” May said in 2016. “We had some nice times with Sacha kicking around ideas, but he went off and told untruths about what happened,” he said.
At a recent premiere of the film, drummer Roger Taylor minimized Cohen’s involvement, telling the Associated Press: “There was a lot of talk about Sacha and stuff. It was never really on. I don’t think he took it seriously enough—didn’t take Freddie seriously enough.”
After a screening of the film I attended in New York this week, producer Graham King continued to toe the line in an audience Q&A. When the subject of Cohen was brought up, King was quick to dismiss it, bluntly declaring, “Sasha was never attached.” He also denied Cohen’s account of the band’s vision: “There was never a screenplay where Freddie died halfway through the film. I know there’s been some press about that.”
Graham then praised Malek’s portrayal of Mercury, as have the other members of Queen. “I think we made the right choice. What do you guys think?” he asked the audience to a round of applause. I clapped with them. After all, Malek did a commendable job at capturing Mercury. In fact, aside from the soundtrack, Bohemian Rhapsody’s greatest strengths were its casting and acting. And those strengths had to do a lot of heavy lifting to compensate for the film’s faults, many of which stemmed from the fact that Cohen was right. His darker vision for the film would have better suited to the real-life story.
While I fully believe the perfectionist Cohen could have committed himself to the Mercury role in a way that did the frontman justice, it’s still very hard to separate the man from his iconic comedic characters. In watching Bohemian Rhapsody, there was not a second that went by in its 135 minutes that my idiot brain didn’t think about how I could’ve been watching the Wa Wa Wee Wa Guy do his best Freddie Mercury. In a scene where a young Mercury proposes to his girlfriend Mary Austin, for example, I couldn’t stop picturing Cohen on bended knee, asking, “Will you be…….. my wiiiiiiiife!” Throughout the movie’s many live performances, Mercury dons various unitards—a silver unitard, a sequined unitard, and black and white checkered unitard. But in my heart, I yearned to see Mercury rip through “Fat Bottomed Girls” in that famous bright green uni-thong we all know and love. And literally any scene could have benefited from a quick “very niiiiice!,” the objectively funniest gag of the last 13 consecutive years.
So maybe Cohen would’ve been a distracting casting choice for your average viewer, but he was dead-on in his assessment of the tone the story should have merited. Bohemian Rhapsody, whose script the Queen members apparently had approval on, ended up offering a Disneyland version of Mercury’s life that sweeps his vices under the rug. There are no scenes of him ripping lines of coke. Instead, we see a quick shot of some leftover powder on the table. There are no shots of Mercury’s rumored celebrity-attended, days-long orgies. Some light kissing is about as deep as the film goes into his sex life. Most of the wilder elements of rock ‘n’ roll recklessness are handled with a wink and a nod, stripping away the hedonistic lore of Queen. It’s how the movie got a PG-13 rating, a very deliberate decision on the filmmakers’ part.
When asked about the film’s rating, King’s justification boiled down to: Queen’s music appealed to a universal audience, ergo a movie about Queen should appeal to a universal audience. That’s how movie-types typically answer that question because it sounds a lot less crass than making the cash register noise.
So to preserve Queen’s legacy, Bohemian Rhapsody gave the world a whitewashed version of the lead singer’s story. And for most casual Queen fans who only know hits like “We Will Rock You” and “Under Pressure,” that’s probably just fine. And for box office numbers and the Queen members’ bank accounts, that’s just fine, too. But for those of us hoping to see a graphic biopic about a cultural figure who embodied a perfect storm of inimitable talent, unimaginable super stardom, a complex relationship with sexuality, and tragic illness, we’ll have to settle for dreaming of the parallel universe in which Sacha Baron Cohen got his way. And on that alternate plane of existence, the movie is……. veryyyyy niiiiiiice.
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter….. NOT.