With the recent announcement that Sacha Baron Cohen had been cast as legendary Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in an upcoming biopic shooting this year, I only had one reaction:
Yup, that’s about right.
A Queen rock anthem had a heightened quality, always bordering on absurd, Spinal Tap-ian territory, but the unique greatness of Mercury was how he belted out operatically overdramatic lyrics with the most bombastic, full-throated commitment. No matter the song, there was no winking, never a sense that the whole glorious enterprise was, even to the tiniest degree, a put-on.
When Mercury was up there on stage, there was never any doubt that he, indeed, truly felt that fat-bottomed girls made the rockin’ world go round.
That’s what cheers me about the prospect of Cohen as Freddie; if Sacha Baron Cohen’s career to this point has been about anything, it’s total commitment to a bit. And while there’s no evidence that Mercury ever considered himself anything but the unironic rock god he portrayed through from the ’70s until his death in 1991, Cohen’s similarly-awe-inspiring inhabitation of his larger-than-life characters (Borat, Bruno, Ali G) seems perfectly suited to the job.
Look at Queen’s most famous (and overplayed) song, the anthemic “We Are the Champions,” which graces countless athletic victories with just the right note of overwrought, juvenile boastfulness while simultaneously, and invariably, bringing tears to the eyes and goosebumps to the flesh of even the sweatiest jock. It’s a neat trick, and one that Mercury’s singular delivery pulls off again and again.
Just listen to “Bohemian Rhapsody” — who else on Earth could turn such an eccentric weirdo of a song into the beloved rock classic that Wayne and Garth so enthusiastically banged heads to? Nobody, that’s who.
In Queen’s heyday, that quality was employed to good effect in the likes of ’80s cheese like “Highlander” (“Princes of the Universe”) and “Iron Eagle” (“One Vision”), their over-the-top, uber-rocking melodrama both echoing and slyly undercutting each film’s overheated action climaxes. Again, if there’s a put-on being perpetrated, it’s a delightfully elusive one. Queen’s just that kind of band.
Some might question whether Cohen’s shown his non-prankish dramatic chops enough to take on a three-dimensional portrait of Freddie (although I think he’s underrated in that regard). But that’s offset by the fact the film proposes to end before Mercury’s death and instead concentrate on the glory days when Mercury was, indeed, the strutting-est, most eclectic performer anywhere.
Dennis Perkins is a Portland freelance writer.
Queen at Live Aid
Live at Wembley in 1986