Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story season four premiere of Freak Show showed a glimpse of genius three quarters through the opening episode when Jessica Lang’s character sang David Bowie’s Life on Mars. Of course purists will shout that the Bowie ballad, which is the best way to describe the song, does not fit the time period. Freak Show takes place in 1952 Jupiter, Florida so of course the song is an anachronism in the old time 1950’s southern setting.
The first two questions that spring to mind are; is Murphy being unique in his use of a 1973 hit for a 1952 television setting and is its appearance glaringly original? Not quite, Baz Luhrmann built an entire film around a catalogue of “modern” songs being performed in 1900’s Paris France. However, the use of Bowie’s song in this opening episode of American Horror Story surpasses Luhrmann’s own genius.
When Lang’s character Elsa Mars comes out to perform her show stopping performance, which is sung to an entire audience of two spoiled, rich devotees of “freaks” the use of the song slots perfectly into this southern backwater setting and story. That this would be Elsa’s personal signature tune goes without saying. Murphy could be asking, with the use of the song, is there life in Mars, the freak show proprietor and wanna be star of the show? Add the use of editing the dead sheriff and the other members of the show reacting to his body with the song overriding the short interspersed scenes and the whole scenario draws the viewer into the world and the sadness and pathos of both Elsa and her little troop.
All three prior seasons of American Horror Story have had their fair share of clever moments. There have also been at least one openly surrealistic scene which also dealt with music and a glimpse of genius as well. The season four premiere of American Horror Story Freak Show using David Bowie’s Life on Mars is even more clever and impressive than season two’s use of The Name Game song which also had Jessica Lange as the singer, and also had that brilliant use of the juxtaposition of one character’s reality being a lie, or not.
The season two set piece, like the Life on Mars scene, could have been influenced by another odd duck of a British television show called Cape Wrath, aka Meadowlands in the U.S. In this series, there was an occasional party sequence in the show where all the inhabitants of the small village would engage in a sort of line-dance to the Sonny & Cher song The Beat Goes On. Just as full of genius as Murphy’s choreographed The Name Game number in season two’s Asylum
Cape Wrath, or Meadowlands, had its own surrealistic setting and odd group of inhabitants, in this case it was an entire town and most of the residents tried to pass themselves off as normal. That these denizens were not quite normal was evidenced more by the musical line dance routine than anything else in the show. Of course Cape Wrath was not a horror series, rather it was an oddity which did not fit any real genre, although it was classed as a drama/mystery/thriller.
Murphy’s use of the song in the premiere episode of the fourth season of American Horror Story Freak Show fits the motif like the tight kid gloves that Jessica Lange’s character wears in the suitcase scene with the twins. That Elsa Mars has spent a lengthy time on stage is alluded to in both the song, with the lyrics of “ten times or more” in writing or living the scene, aka her performances and her introduction by Ethel Darling. The genius of having Lange’s character with her “German” accent and Marlene Dietrich style suit singing Life On Mars is just one indicator that this season of American Horror Story will be even more clever in its engineering than the prior seasons. If viewers need proof, apart from the song that is, they should just study Bette’s and Dot’s feet as the “women” are moved down the hospital hallway. Such attention to detail bodes well for what may be the scariest, and creepiest series of American Horror Story yet as well as the most clever. American Horror Story airs Wednesdays on FX. Until next week’s show watch and listen to Lange’s character sing the song in the video below and see what emotions her performance dredges up. Just brilliant.
By Michael Smith