“Bohemian Rhapsody” opens in theaters nationwide November 2 with “Mr. Robot” Emmy winner Rami Malek starring as Queen frontman and rock legend Freddie Mercury, but nearly a decade ago it was “Borat” comedian Sacha Baron Cohen who was planning to step into the role for a Mercury biopic. Cohen’s movie started as an idea from “The Crown” creator Peter Morgan, who began working on a script in 2010 about Queen and the buildup to the band’s legendary Live Aid performance.
The project ultimately attracted “The Queen” director Stephen Frears, who recently looked back at the unmade project during an interview with Vulture. Cohen first courted the likes of “The King’s Speech” director Tom Hooper and David Fincher to direct the film before Frears landed the job. The director said Cohen’s vision for the film was explicit and true to Mercury’s spirit.
“Sacha wanted to make a very outrageous film, which I would imagine Freddie Mercury would have approved of,” Frears told Vulture. “Outrageous in terms of his homosexuality and outrageous in terms of endless naked scenes. Sacha loved all of that.”
With Cohen set to star as Mercury, the project attracted Sony. “I’m not sure whether Sacha was attached from the very beginning of Sony’s involvement, but there was definitely a period where [he] was meant to star and he and the studio met with directors,” a former Sony executive said. “It was a biopic of Freddie more than the story of the band, although a portion of the structure dealt with the ups and downs of the band, but always from Freddie’s POV.”
Frears said it didn’t take long for the project to quickly fall apart. Band members Brian May and Roger Taylor had a “certain amount of caution” over Cohen’s vision, which they feared would not preserve Mercury’s legacy the way they intended. Frears said Cohen was committed to making a biopic that was a “gritty R-rated tell-all.”
“You could always tell there would be trouble with the rest of the band,” Frears said. “Because [Sacha] was so outrageous and they weren’t. They were much more conventional.”
Cohen eventually left the project when it became clear the Queen members had no interest in making an edgier movie about Mercury’s life. The comedian famously told Howard Stern in 2016 that one of the band members wanted the film to tell the entire life story of Queen, putting Mercury’s death in the middle of the film and having the second half continue telling the stories of the surviving members.
“Listen, not one person is going to see a movie where the lead character dies from AIDS and then you carry on to see the band,” Cohen said at the time.
Frears said he “sort of drifted away” from the movie once Cohen left. Malek was eventually cast in the part, but the final product, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” has been mostly slammed by film critics for being a sugarcoated and conventional look at Mercury’s life. IndieWire’s David Ehrlich called the film “royally embarrassing” in his D+ review.