February 20, 2019

“Conquered in a Car Seat” — Thoughts On “Bohemian Rhapsody”

By Stuart Mitchner

And I’m conquered in a car seat,
Not a thing that I can do…
— Van Morrison, from “Cyprus Avenue.”

I’m driving down Nassau Street on a fine brisk late April afternoon in 1976 when something called “Bohemian Rhapsody” comes on the radio. Fresh from the birth of a son, I’m like a happy Ancient Mariner ready to stop people on the street to tell them my story, only instead of coming from the realm of the living dead I’ve been to the promised land of life and love. Now this piece of music erupting from the ancient Dodge Dart’s equally ancient radio, is giving me what I need, matching my emotional overload, speaking to and for me: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”

Somewhere between the stoplights on Nassau, I’m wrenched from “easy come, easy go, a little high, a little low” to “Mama, just killed a man, put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger, now he’s dead.” The words “life had just begun” rhyme with my first-time parental bliss, but not “I’ve gone and thrown it all away.” Looking back at the moment, I see the ultimate “little did he know” scenario. Go ahead, sing along, fool, blissfully ignorant of the highs and lows of the epic manic depressive opera of fatherhood awaiting you. Again, the song seems to know where I’m going. No sooner do the words “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all” voice the lament I hear from my troubled son four decades later, here comes the zany, out-of-nowhere cry of “Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango,” a light opera Harpo Marx Bronx cheer for apocalypse (“thunder and lightning very very frightening”), and then, incredibly, absurdly, thrillingly, “Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Figaro, magnifico!”

It’s a wonder I don’t run over someone at the Witherspoon intersection, red lights, green lights, the colors lose their meaning in the same car with “we will not let you go, never let you go,” and now, who can resist, I really am singing along as if the song were inside of me, years in the making, “Oh mama mia, mama mia, mamma mia let me go.” No, wait, time to pull over on Spring, there’s no singing along with “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me — for me!” I’m nodding my head to the cosmic epitome of guitar breaks, the happy Ancient Mariner going gloriously round the bend, swept ashore, exhausted, out of breath, but who cares —- “Nothing really matters, nothing really matters …”

How long did the experience last?  Just under six minutes? Unbelievable. The world turned, a child was born, a song was sung but so much more than a song. Fifteen years later the child who claims “Bohemian Rhapsody” was the first music he ever heard would be mourning Freddie Mercury.

Film vs Video

I almost skipped Bohemian Rhapsody, the film, after seeing the video promoting the song made by Queen in November 1975. The budget for the film was $50-55 million dollars; according to ultimateclassicrock.com, the video directed by Bruce Gowers cost “a few thousand pounds” and was made in four hours. The film took five months to make, lasts over two hours, and offers nothing as inventive as the video. Rami Malek should win the Best Actor Oscar if only for the sheer physical effort of performing Freddie Mercury, in spite of the creepy Halloween effect of that prosthetic overbite; whenever he smiles, you cringe. His body language is as elaborate as a passage of heightened prose but, like the film as a whole, it lacks warmth and depth, never really convincing you that this superficially flamboyant person could have composed a work as rich and strange as “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It might have helped had Malek projected something like the haunted, haunting mood of the hoodie-wearing master of the cyber universe he plays in the Amazon series Mr.Robot. It goes without saying that the music is amazing, but whenever it’s not there, the film suffers, so much so that one of the most exciting moments is when you realize Queen’s manager John Reid is being played by Little Finger from Game of Thrones. For that matter, where’s the raging beauty of “Death on Two Legs” for the scene where Aidan Gillen is thrown from the limo (“Is your conscience all right? Does it plague you at night?”).

No Gatekeeper

Another problem with the film is that an actor with a gatekeeper is playing a performer who had none. The first time I heard this term used was when a high school drama teacher told me, “Your son has no gatekeeper. I tell the other kids, get rid of the gatekeeper, but they can’t.” The total absence of stage fright has its downside, however, should the gatekeeper be missing when one of your friends encourages you to sing “Bohemian Rhapsody” a capella in the hallway between classes.

The best performance I’ve seen in years was by an actor playing a character with no gatekeeper, or at best a very unreliable one. I wish I could say Robbie Coltrane was up for an Oscar this year, but Cracker, the series he starred in, was filmed in the 1990s. It’s about the exploits of a hugely overweight crime-solving genius psychologist named Fitz who smokes too much, gambles too much, drinks too much, and, as someone says, is too much. He’s the sort who stands up to speak at his daughter’s wedding banquet and gives a sarcastic account of her lovelife complete with withering comments about the groom. Then there’s the time he’s standing between two psychotic-looking skinheads at a pub’s room-for-everyone urinal. To the skinhead on his left: “You’re the artistic kind — it goes everywhere.” To the one on his right: “You’re the Luke Skywalker type — straight like a laser beam. I can’t help but take a look — people usually find it disgusting.” Skinhead: “You looking for a broken nose, pal?” Fitz: “Yeah, you know someone who can give me one, pal?” Next shot Fitz emerges mopping his bloody nose.

Of course if you’re good enough to win three straight Bafta Best Actor awards, there must be a gatekeeper somewhere on the premises.

A Sympathetic Actor

The death of Bruno Ganz, reported in Sunday’s New York Times (“An Actor Who Played an Angel and Hitler”), has me thinking back to my first encounter with Wim Wenders’s The American Friend and Ganz’s subdued, centered, deeply sympathetic performance as a frame-maker. Although Wenders’s direction and Robbie Muller’s visionary cinematography created the spell I was under when I left the theatre, what I’m moved by now is Ganz’s ability to convey humanity, artistry and vulnerability while at work humming Kinks songs like “Too Much On My Mind.” In fact, Wim Wenders, who once said his brain had been “colonized” by rock and roll, may be the only director alive today who could have made a film worthy of Freddie Mercury’s story. 

My first viewing of The American Friend came in 1977, less than a year after Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” left me “conquered in a car seat.” My account of that experience has been amplified and reimagined after numerous recent hearings of the song and viewings of the video, which can be seen on YouTube. The shots of Freddie singing are worth a thousand biopics, and it’s hard to think of a more fitting farewell than the moment he sings that his time has come, shivers down his spine, body aching all the time: “Goodbye everybody — I’ve got to go — gotta leave you all behind and face the truth.”