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  • Writer's pictureDavid Bernhart

Laurie and I recently saw "Bohemian Rhapsody," the biographical film about the band Queen and its lead singer Freddie Mercury. Rock-and-rollers are supposed to break rules, not follow them. Yet for all the differences in content and tone, biopics of today are fundamentally the same as those of the 1930s and '40s:

  • Hero shows promise.

  • Hero struggles to succeed.

  • Hero has groundbreaking ideas.

  • Hero is told "You can't do that."

  • Hero is vindicated.

  • Hero finds love.

  • Hero loses love.

  • If already deceased at the time of production, hero dies a noble death.

  • And of course, the movie's title must be drawn from one of the hero's best-known works.

In my younger years, I had difficulty accepting the liberties that filmmakers have always taken in portraying the lives of real people. I was offended by composite characters, made-up characters, telescoped timelines and events presented out of their actual chronological order, to mention only a few of my grievances. Instead of making a movie based on a version of a suggestion of a hint, why not just tell the truth?

My feelings began to change after I saw 1938's "Marie Antoinette," with Norma Shearer in the title role. I went to the screening knowing little about the picture and not expecting to like it. To my surprise, I got caught up in the drama with the rest of the audience as though we all didn't know how the story would end. And my appreciation of the film remained undiminished when I read later about its many examples of dramatic license. Yes, Marie still dies on the guillotine; otherwise her life is streamlined in the cause of plot advancement. But it works.

A further stepping stone for me was seeing "Rhapsody in Blue," the 1945 biopic of George Gershwin starring Robert Alda, resenting its fictional aspects, then reading a standard Gershwin biography. In his last days, the composer tried to push his chauffeur out of a moving car and later crushed chocolates that had been sent to him as a gift and smeared them all over his body. Mores of the times made their decision easier, but I realized the makers of the film still deserved credit for not pairing Gershwin's glorious music with an attempt at realistically depicting the effects of the brain tumor that killed him.

I'm happily reconciled to the fact that feature films will never be a place to learn the truth, despite movie trailers continuing to promise "the untold true story." Since coming around to this reality, I enjoy biographical pictures for the things they do well. The musical performances captured in "Rhapsody in Blue" more than make up for its historical inaccuracies, as does Rami Malek's portrayal of Freddie Mercury in "Bohemian Rhapsody." And if I want to know what really happened, that's what books are for.

  • Writer's pictureDavid Bernhart

The recent and unlikely controversy surrounding Frank Loesser's 1949 Academy Award-winner "Baby, It's Cold Outside" got me reflecting on other songs that aren't about Christmas itself but have an association with the holiday season just the same. My favorite of these is Tom Waits' "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis," from Tom's 1978 album "Blue Valentine."

Tom takes the 32-bar format of the pop standard, elongates it, then superimposes on it some very non-standard-like subject matter and imagery:

Hey Charley, I'm pregnant, living on 9th Street

Right above a dirty bookstore off Euclid Avenue

I stopped takin' dope and I quit drinkin' whiskey

My old man plays the trombone and works out at the track

He says that he loves me, even though it's not his baby

He says that he'll raise him up like he would his own son

He gave me a ring that was worn by his mother

And he takes me out dancin' every Saturday night

And hey Charley, I think about you every time I pass a fillin' station

On account of all the grease you used to wear in your hair

I still have that record, Little Anthony and the Imperials

But someone stole my record player, well now how do you like that?

And hey Charley, I almost went crazy after Mario got busted

I went back to Omaha to live with my folks

But everyone I used to know was either dead or in prison

So I came back to Minneapolis, this time I think I'm gonna stay

Hey Charley, I think I'm happy for the first time since my accident

I wish I had all the money we used to spend on dope

I'd buy me a used car lot and I wouldn't sell any of 'em

I'd just drive a different car every day dependin' on how I feel

Hey Charley, for Chrissake, if you want to know the truth of it

I don't have a husband, he don't play the trombone

I need to borrow money to pay this lawyer, and Charley, hey

I'll be eligible for parole come Valentine's Day

It's a minor masterpiece. And I still wonder if Charley ever sent her the money.

  • Writer's pictureDavid Bernhart

One of my early insights from working after school in the travel agency concerned the different ways people perceive distance and time.

A client phoned, needing to fly one-way from Birmingham, Ala., I believe it was, home to Los Angeles. With no direct service from Birmingham to L.A., the smoothest connections and lowest fare on the desired travel date involved flying from Birmingham to Atlanta, then changing planes to a flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles. I began describing the schedules to our client, but when I mentioned Atlanta, he stopped me.

"I'm heading to L.A.," he said. "Birmingham to Atlanta takes me in the wrong direction."

I paused. Our client wanted to fly west from Birmingham and was correct, of course, that Atlanta is to the east. I explained that the way the schedules fell, connecting in Atlanta would put him on the ground at LAX sooner than if he changed planes anywhere else. And he would pay less to boot.

But our client remained stuck on the unacceptability of traveling east when he wanted to go west. At a certain point in the conversation, I think I tried to analogize the situation to that of Christopher Columbus, who had wanted to go east but was convinced he would get there faster by sailing west. Wasn't our client's time ultimately more important to him than the direction of the city in which he would change planes?

Apparently not; the gentleman still wouldn't budge.

In the end, I booked a reservation from Birmingham to Dallas-Fort Worth to Los Angeles. Our client paid more and arrived home later, but he flew west from the get-go as he wanted and didn't let anybody make a chump out of him.

This scenario has come up a few times since then, most recently just a couple of years ago. I no longer push quite as hard to persuade a client that they shouldn't object to starting off in the opposite direction of their final destination. Doing what your client wants you to do sometimes conflicts with what you know would be best for them. But as my dad liked to say, "The customer is often right."

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