Freddie Mercury Sacha Baron Cohen

Sacha Baron Cohen was originally going to play (an R-rated) Freddie Mercury

Would Bohemian Rhapsody have been a better film? Probably.

When the Bohemian Rhapsody project was originally announced way back in 2010, the actor who was tied to the lead role depicting Queen frontman Freddie Mercury was Sacha Baron Cohen.

This may have appeared to be stunt-casting at the time as Sacha Baron Cohen was then known almost exclusively for his comedy prankster personas Borat and Ali G, but the Freddie Mercury biopic was a “passion project” for Cohen for years. Ultimately it was creative differences with the rest of Queen that made him quit.

The Bryan Singer-directed version of Bohemian Rhapsody that was released in 2018, earning an Oscar for its star Rami Malek, was completely different from what Cohen had in mind. Cohen envisioned an honest, R-rated approach depicting Mercury’s homosexuality and hedonistic lifestyle.

“Sacha wanted to make a very outrageous film, which I would imagine Freddie Mercury would have approved of,” said Stephen Frears, one of several other directors attached to the project early on (alongside David Fincher and Tom Hooper). “Outrageous in terms of his homosexuality and outrageous in terms of endless naked scenes. Sacha loved all of that.”

“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 told Howard Stern in 2016 that members of Queen, who had final script approval, at one point wanted Freddie Mercury’s death to occur in the middle of the film and have the focus turn to the rest of the band.

“A member of the band — I won’t say who — said: ‘You know, this is such a great movie because it’s got such an amazing thing that happens in the middle.’ And I go: ‘What happens in the middle of the movie?’ He goes: ‘You know, Freddie dies.’ … I go: ‘What happens in the second half of the movie?’ He goes: ‘We see how the band carries on from strength to strength.’

“I said: ‘Listen, not one person is going to see a movie where the lead character dies from AIDS and then you see how the band carries on.’ There are amazing stories about Freddie Mercury. The guy was wild. There are stories of little people walking around parties with plates of cocaine on their heads!”

Around the time Bohemian Rhapsody was released, Queen’s Roger Taylor claimed that Sacha Baron Cohen was in fact dropped from the project, and was “was never really on.”

“I don’t think he took it seriously enough,” May said. “(He) didn’t take Freddie seriously enough.”

Between Sacha Baron Cohen leaving the project and the eventual hiring of Rami Malek, the Freddie Mercury role was also offered to British actor Sam Riley, who had already done the rock biopic thing, playing tragic Joy Division singer Ian Curtis in Control. Riley revealed that he turned down the gig. It was reported in 2016 that the film’s producers wanted Ben Whishaw to play the role.

As for the final, Queen-approved version of Bohemian Rhapsody, Cult MTL film editor Alex Rose stated that the film killed the rock biopic genre.

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