If you’re one of those people who think music has lost its dangerous edge, Sacha Baron Cohen had the cure for that in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” Taking on two levels of disguise in the 2020 sequel, Cohen again played his fictional Borat character, who in turn disguised himself for a key sequence in the movie as Country Dave, a singer who shows up to perform a song called “The Wuhan Flu” at a right-wing militia rally. His Borat and Country Dave characters may be fictional, but the rally was very real, and the presumably well-armed audience that had gathered for the Washington Three Percenters’ gathering in Olympia, Washington last June was not the kind of crowd to take having its beliefs mocked in a spirit of good fun.
So while “Wuhan Flu” was framed as a country-bluegrass song, in a matter of thinking, it was really about as punk-rock a song as has ever been created.
Will it be a bit much for awards voters? With mock-radical-right lyrics suggesting that Dr. Fauci should be injected with COVID-19, and that chopping up political enemies “like the Saudis do” is a journalists is a cure for what ails the pro-Trump right, “Wuhan Flu” goes to such extremes that some will rightly see it as disturbingly hilarious… while others may get stop short at just being disturbed. But it’s certainly key to a linchpin scene in a movie unabashedly created as a howl of anger at the Trump years, and timed to stoke that outrage just before the presidential election — a cause that could boost the chances of maybe the most deliberately ignoble song ever submitted to the Academy.
Variety spoke with Cohen and his brother, Erran Baron Cohen, who together have created songs for the star’s run of character-disguised movies, including the original “Borat” film in 2006 and “Bruno” in 2009. They described coming up with a ditty that makes heavy light of the American far right’s drift toward the acceptance of violence… and how close a run-in with actual violence the actor may have had when an angry crowd started to rush the stage at the rally. The brothers also reveal some additional iniquitous lyrics that got left on the cutting-room floor.
VARIETY: With “Wuhan Flu,” you were writing a song for two audiences — the eventual movie viewing audience, which you hope will find it immediately funny, and the rally attendees who were there as part of the scene, who you obviously hoped would not realize you were satirizing their beliefs, at least not initially. How difficult was it to walk that line?
SACHA BARON COHEN: Well, I think the trick to that is the song itself has to be brilliantly written in that it has to be catchy and appealing to both audiences. Erran is a specialist in coming up with those songs that are deeply funny to the audience, but also completely believable in the moment. One example of that is Erran wrote the “Kazakhstan National Anthem” at the end of the first “Borat” movie. At a major international sporting event, they actually put on Erran’s version of the “Kazakhstan National Anthem” while one of the athletes was being given a gold medal, with Erran singing the lyrics. So in my experience, he’s my brother, but he also happens to be the best in the business that writing a completely authentic song that is incredibly catchy, that everyone wants to sing along with, but is also comical to the audience who are listening at a later date.
ERRAN BARON COHEN: The music has to be very believable, as we’re not writing a comedy song but a song that feels like the right thing for where it is being performed and is believable to that audience. It starts almost innocently, and then it gets more crazy. But the music has to bring everybody along and instantly something that people could sing along with.
SACHA: The audience has to love the message of the song, aaand they have to love it musically. And here that had to happen almost immediately with the chorus — “Obama, what we gonna do? We inject him with the Wuhan flu.”
ERRAN: When Sacha first told me about his idea of this song, I just thought, obviously this is going to be very dangerous, but it was a brilliant opportunity to write something really important.
How long did you want “Wuhan Flu” to go on before it got more ridiculous and the audience started to catch on? You’ve said you had eight or nine minutes of lyrics written for this, but you probably knew you couldn’t get through that many verses without the audience catching on and figuring something was wrong.
SACHA: No, the reason the audience at one point figured something was going on was that that particular group who were attending that rally had been disrupting protests organized by Black Lives Matter. And so as a result, there were some Black Lives Matter infiltrators that were in that audience videoing the rally. And they were the ones who recognized me and suddenly went, “Oh my God, it’s Sacha Baron Cohen,” and then the word spread that this was not a real thing. Actually, I ended up on stage for about 12 minutes.
And, yes, the challenge of writing the song was, you want it, again, to be completely believable, and then you want to incrementally push the song further and further, in revealing how far the audience were ready to go along with an authoritarian mindset, essentially. We were trying to reveal: if Trump was elected again, what would his supporters be ready to put up with? Would they be ready to put up with the persecution, imprisonment and ultimately murder of political opponents? And that’s really what the song, in a very lighthearted way, is doing. It’s about injecting people with a potentially lethal disease, and chopping up journalists in the same way that Khashoggi had been assassinated by Saudis. There was a verse about nuking China: “Nuke ‘em up like in World War II.” The audience was singing along with this verse which was suggesting that China be nuked like we did in World War II, even though obviously Japan was nuked in World War II. So you’re also trying to reveal the ignorance of the audience as well. And one of the versions (included lyrics) about gassing scientists up like the Germans…
ERRAN: That verse about gassing like the Germans… You just saw that guy wearing the Auschwitz T-shirt at the rally in Washington. They are ready to do this. That was the point of the song, exposing how far they would be ready to go along with these things, even unwittingly with a song. As we’re seeing now, they’re actually ready to do these things in reality.
SACHA: Yeah. The idea of the song was a warning of what could become Trump’s second term — what might occur. The theory was that you’d see a further retreat of democracy and a transition of America to a completely authoritarian regime, which was officially and in name only a democracy, where political opponents were silenced, imprisoned and persecuted. And that’s what we were trying to reveal. Through a bloody good song.
This came together pretty quickly, right? Because seeing the rally coming and planning for it probably didn’t leave you too much time.
SACHA: Yeah, it was amazingly fast. When we came up with the “Kazakhstan National Anthem,” Erran wrote that in the afternoon. We woke up the next morning and we had it on an email in our inbox. This thing, also, it took Erran a few hours.
ERRAN: We had a couple of days, and there was a lot of to-and-froing with the lyrics and the way verses worked and phrasing. I think I did about 10 or 11 or 12 versions with different lyrics and trying things out. But the initial theme and melody and that very catchy chorus came very quickly.
And you had time to hire a very brave band and teach it to them.
SACHA: Yeah. We had to convince the audience that this was a band — that Borat, in his persona of Country Steve, was a country singer. So you had to be good enough to be believable as a country singer, but bad enough for the audience to see that it’s this naive Kazakhstan journalist underneath.
The song has a pretty serious intent, in the end. But is there any particular part of it that still makes you laugh when you think about it?
SACHA: Yes, there was actually a verse about Joe Biden that never made it out… What was it? Let me try and remember it… Here we go. “Sleepy Joe Biden is a wussy / He’s too PC to grab a pussy / He not clever like Premier Trump… / Sleepy Joe Biden, what we gonna do? / Inject him with the Wuhan flu.” … Actually, the final verse of the song was about Donald Trump, making him president for life, “like the Russians do.” And feeding Democratic voters to the bears, like the Chechans do. It was really all about the slide into authoritarianism.
Were you sorry that you didn’t get through all the verses in that setting?
SACHA: No, I did get through them all. I mean, at some point, as I said, word got round the crowd after a while that it was me, and then the crowd threatened violence, and it then becomes a dilemma for me as a performer of: How much do I want to get in the can, versus how much do I want to live?
ERRAN: I did say to Sacha before he performed, “I hope you get out alive,” because it was a bit worrying, what he was facing, and the bravery of it. I’m just glad he got through it and managed to survive. Because it’s certainly probably the most dangerous song ever sung at a festival.
SACHA: Yeah. It had an element of “The Blues Brothers” to it, you know? We got surrounded in our getaway vehicle and that was a little bit hairy for a while.
It did bring to mind the bands that have performed behind chicken wire before, and thinking bulletproof glass might have been tempting in this case.
ERRAN: I was glad that I just had to be in the studio in London rather than on stage in that performance, for sure.
SACHA: Well, you know, I was wearing a bulletproof vest. And then I was advised by my security guard, “The issue is, there’s so much firepower out there that your vest is not going to be able to withstand it if people start shooting.” So we had built an amplifier on stage that was basically almost bulletproof. And he said, “All right, if they really do start shooting, you jump behind that and then we’ll get you off stage.” Unfortunately, eventually they stormed the stage and somebody did reach for his gun, and I was lucky enough that I had a brilliant security guard who held the guy’s arm down and whispered in his ear, “It’s not worth it, buddy.” So I’m thankful for that. He’s getting a nice present. He’s getting a nice wrap gift.
In a TV news report after the event, when no one yet knew this for a “Borat” film but you had been recognized as Country Dave, one of the guys behind the rally was saying that you had 50 guys there.
SACHA: What’s that, 50 guys? No, no, no, no. I think we had three security guards. What happened was, we had created a company that helped sponsor and helped provide the music for the event. And so we created this fake company, and as a result we could control… We had some kind of nightclub security; I think a lot of them were Samoans — completely unarmed — and they prevented these people with military-grade weapons from getting on stage. They’re just like, “Nope, you’re not going to do that.” But eventually they stormed the stage, which was a little unsettling. And then we did get chased. We were in an ambulance. We got chased by guys on Harley Davidsons for quite a while. Yeah, the aftermath wasn’t fantastic.
Did you consider recording a polished studio version of the song, as well?
SACHA: We did, actually, but then… The song is a satirical song, and for it to be satirical, you need to have real people joining along with it. Once it’s recorded in the studio, then is there really a satirical purpose to it?
ERRAN: I did want to go out singing the song at the end of the movie, to have it in the end credits, but yeah, … At the end, that wasn’t going to work. It definitely would have been nice to get maybe some other people singing it anyway, but we never really polished that completely, as a finished song.
Could you imagine performing it at an awards show, if it came down to that?
SACHA: We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Will there even be an awards show?
ERRAN: Yeah. It would certainly make the awards show very, very interesting if we were to do the song. I think there might have to be a bit of tweaking of lyrics, but there’s a lot of other (subsequent topical) stuff to talk about now, you know, which could be adapted.