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Given the on-screen insanity, an erratic, COVID-impacted production wrapped in secrecy, and very heavy use of editing, soundtracking a feature such as Amazon’s recent headline-amassing and Rudy Giuliani-angering Borat Subsequent Moviefilm may seem a tall order for any musician.
But it’s a task that composer Erran Baron Cohen knows only too well, having worked with his younger brother Sacha Baron Cohen on all of his previous films and TV shows, including Who Is America?, The Dictator, Bruno, the first Borat feature and, going back some 20 years, Da Ali G Show.
It was the elder Baron Cohen who had to quickly compose the music for “Wuhan Flu” (with lyrics suggesting Barack Obama is injected with COVID-19 and journalists are chopped up “like the Saudis do”), which his brother — as Borat — sang just days later to a crowd of Donald Trump supporters (some of whom then charged the stage having seen through the disguise). It was also the elder Baron Cohen who was tasked with coming up with the music for arguably the film’s most notorious scene, involving Trump’s personal lawyer, a hotel room, a microphone wire, and the actress playing Borat’s 15-year-old daughter.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Baron Cohen discusses working with his brother, potentially taking “Wuhan Flu” to the Academy Awards, and how he might soundtrack Rudy Giuliani’s equally infamous Four Seasons Total Landscaping press conference.
Where do you even begin composing the music for a film like Borat 2?
With trepidation and fear. Working with my brother’s a bit of a rollercoaster and always crazy. The nature of his projects are not like [those of] a usual film. And things change all the time. Normally there’s a story. I mean, there was a script, but by the time you get from the script to what you see, it’s completely different.
But because it was Borat, there was an obvious musical sound that we knew about already, which was a very authentic sound. But it wasn’t an authentic Kazakh sound – it’s actually a Romanian Balkan gypsy sound. We had that in the first film, so that was kind of a starting point for the musical sound.
The production of Borat 2 came under a very heavy shroud of secrecy, for obvious reasons. How far in advance are you told what sort of insanity is going to occur?
Not much. There were some things written down, but it didn’t make much sense anyway. Until you really see, you don’t know what you’re in for. But for things like the “Wuhan Flu” song, I was contacted a couple of days before they needed it and sent lyrics. I was lucky to get a couple of days. There’s always the time pressure because they’re filming the film and need it on set to do it. For that scene I knew it was going to be dangerous. I said to Sasha, just make sure you get out alive.
So you were sent the lyrics for “Wuhan Flu” and then quickly compose a track on top so it could be played live at the Trump rally?
Yeah. There’s actually an eight- or nine-minute version with all the vocals. I suppose the question was how much could they get through.
So which bits didn’t make it?
Well, I got sent about 10-15 verses.
I’m assuming that you’re never on set – you’re always safely at home in London…
No. I would love to, although obviously I wouldn’t have liked to have been anywhere near that Wuhan song. But I did everything from London. Although I did do some recordings in Vienna, where I’ve got some very good musician friends who I’ve worked with before. But also because of the gypsy-Balkan element, it’s right on the borders, and I wanted to make it very authentic. It was very important to have it sounding real, rather than some sort of mock version.
If “Wuhan Flu” was nominated for an Oscar, would you perform it at the Academy Awards?
I would love to, if we could travel then. I think that would be one of the best things that would ever happen at the Oscars. It would make it the most interesting Oscars ceremony ever.
Would you do you the same version from the film, or perhaps a more somber and emotional rendition?
The issue of course is that it’s a racist song… it’s highlighting the racism in people. I think we could easily change the lyrics. I think it might be funny to do that and make a special version that was maybe more appropriate. We’ve got eight minutes of stuff already. But times may have changed by then anyway and we might have something else to talk about.
The scene that obviously caused the most chaos and sparked the headlines was the one with Rudy Guiliani. How did you approach soundtracking that? How do you even begin to compose the music for a scene in which the President’s personal lawyer is seen in a hotel bedroom with an actress portraying a 15-year-old Kazakh girl?
The discussion we had was that this is a bit like a horror movie where the monster is Rudy’s penis. It’s a kind of creepy horror movie type sound that I was doing for that. And I think it works.
In a real-life moment that almost seemed straight out of Borat, Guiliani recently gave a press conference in front of a landscaping company sandwiched between an adult shop and an undertaker. If it were in a film, how might you soundtrack this?
I think there are two ways to do that. A lot of people would just put the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme on. But I sometimes think just not having any music at all is more powerful, because it’s so ridiculous and stupid. In the first Borat where he’s wrestling naked with Azamat and his arse is in my brother’s face, there was no music. Any music would have actually made it seem less real and may have ruined it. So I quite like to question whether you need music.
But also I find the best thing that works with comedy is to go with the character. You believe them. From Rudy’s point of view, he’s doing the best and saving Donald Trump and he’s a hero. So I’d probably look at doing something heroic, and that music would make it seem even more ridiculous.
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