EXCLUSIVE: Whether it’s Marvin Gaye, Janis Joplin, Phil Spector or a host of others, enough announced music pics stall that it’s hard to find one worth worth getting excited about. Try this one: Sacha Baron Cohen has closed a deal to play Queen front man Freddie Mercury in a film that’s being scripted by Peter Morgan for a 2011 production start. The untitled film will be financed by GK Films partners Graham King and Tim Headington, who’ll produce in partnership with Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal’s Tribeca Productions, and Queen Films. Morgan is already working on a script focused on the band’s formative years, leading up to Queen’s appearance at Live Aid in 1985. Queen’s performance is considered one of the rock’s all-time great live concert appearances.
A rights package has been set that includes the band’s tunes, including Bohemian Rhapsody, We Will Rock You, We Are the Champions , Another One Bites The Dust and You’re My Best Friend. It is unclear whether Baron Cohen will sing—I’m told he can sing—or whether Mercury’s vocals will be used. Nobody sang like Mercury, so trying to replicate him would be a tall order. These decisions will be made as a director gets hired. Mercury died November 24, 1991 of complications from AIDS. Though his death helped to remove the stigma of AIDS sufferers prevalent at that time and particularly in the rock music industry, Mercury’s last days won’t be the subject of the film.
Baron Cohen is an intriguing choice. For one thing, he looks more like Mercury than any star I can think of. While Baron Cohen’s primarily a comic actor, he plays well-defined characters in films from Borat to Talladega Nights, Sweeney Todd and Bruno, and he’s currently starring in the 3D Martin Scorsese-directed drama Hugo Cabret, also for GK Films. In April, Baron Cohen was the catalyst for a big bucks comedy pitch being written by Alec Berg, Jeff Schaffer and David Mandel. Paramount beat out others for a film, which calls for Baron Cohen to play dual roles of a goat herder and a deposed dictator who gets lost in the US. It was an extravagant deal and the project is on a fast track. It’s unclear how timing factors into the Mercury film.
Morgan has become a go-to guy for prestige films based on real figures, from Frost/Nixon to The Queen (no relation), The Last King of Scotland and Damned United. His most recent script, Hereafter, made its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last Sunday, with director Clint Eastwood and stars Matt Damon and Bryce Dallas Howard introducing the film at the Elgin Theater.
GK’s King confirmed the Queen deal: “Queen is one of the greatest rock bands of all time, and a music brand all unto itself,” he said in a statement. “Freddie Mercury was an awe-inspiring performer, so with Sacha in the starring role coupled with Peter’s screenplay and the support of Queen, we have the perfect combination to tell the real story behind their success.”
This is the first time the surviving members of Queen–Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon–have licensed songs and music publishing rights for a movie about the band and they formed Queen Films to be part of the production team on the film. They previously supplied their songs to We Will Rock You, the stage musical that has been running 9 years on London’s West End.
GK Films tomorrow opens the Ben Affleck-directed The Town through Warner Bros, and the Angelina Jolie-Johnny Depp thriller The Tourist opens December 10 through Columbia Pictures. Baron Cohen’s repped by WME and Morgan by UTA and UK-based Independent Talent Group.