Sign up for the
and get $50 off Final Draft 12
By Martin Keady · January 12, 2016
Bye bye, Bowie. Undoubtedly the greatest pop star ever and arguably the greatest artist of any kind of the last fifty years has died, and now that we have all finally abandoned the faint hope that the sad news was a hoax (or some sort of Bowie-esque artistic statement) it is time to assess the legacy of David the Great, including his unique cinematic legacy.
The first thing to say about Bowie and movies was that first, and foremost, he was not simply a great actor, but rather a great star. It was as if the persona that was so ambiguous, so androgynous and so utterly indeterminate in his other artistic endeavours (the music, obviously, but also the fashion, the visual iconography and even the sexuality, which may have been his ultimate art form) was too fixed, too rigid in cinema. Like many stars of Hollywood's golden age, Bowie never really disappeared into a role, no matter how nuanced or subtle his performance. In a film, unlike in a concert or a promo video, he could only ever be David Bowie, the last great star of the 20th century, even as he took on weighty roles like Pontius Pilate, a Japanese PoW the inventor Nicola Tesla. Consequently, his greatest movie performances were invariably as himself or one of his artistic alter-egos (Thomas Jerome Newton, aka The Man Who Fell To Earth, being an artistic self-creation to rank alongside Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke).
Nevertheless, Bowie’s influence on cinema, as on almost every other popular art-form, was indelible. While many cinema buffs will no doubt remember him most for his iconic performance in Labyrinth, or his more recent work in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, there are dozens of ways in which Mr. Bowie contributed to cinema (some less obvious than others).
So, without further adieu, here are the Top 10 Bowie movies, and being a Bowie Top 10 I hope it has at least a flavour of the sheer idiosyncrasy of the man himself.
10. MOON (2009, Directed by Duncan Jones, Written by Nathan Parker)
This is a classic Bowie “cheat” (or at least “artistic trick”): including a film made by his son, Duncan Jones. But this is “Bowie – The Top 10 Movies” and arguably his son’s modern-day sci-fi classic about a moon-miner undergoing an existential crisis is the most purely “Bowie-esque” movie ever made, neatly encapsulating the themes of isolation and terror of self that were at the heart of David’s greatest music. (If all the Beatles needed for subject matter was love, all Bowie ever needed was alienation, and paradoxically that was what drew millions of people to him.)
9. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968, Directed by Stanley Kubrick, Written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke)
Like Moon, including 2001 in this list is an example of the type of artistic appropriation (whereby one artist can claim authorship of, or at least affinity with, another artist’s work because of their use of, or expansion of, the original art-work) that Bowie absolutely revelled in. Of course 2001 is Kubrick’s ultimate masterpiece, but it is also a quintessential “Bowie movie” because of its influence upon him and, in turn, because of what he made of it. His first big hit was Space Oddity, which was not only directly inspired by his love of the film but the first great example of his love of punning and wordplay, which continued all the way through his career to his final album, Blackstar, with songs such as “Tis A Pity She Was A Whore”.
2001 continued to be an ongoing source of inspiration for Bowie beyond Space Oddity. Indeed, it almost established the template both for many of Bowie’s finest “alien songs” (from Ziggy Stardust in the early 70s right up to the title of his late 90s album, Earthling) and for the whole “lost in space” sci-fi sub-genre that has become so popular in recent years, from Duncan/Zowie’s Moon to Gravity and The Martian.
8. THE ASHES TO ASHES VIDEO (1980)
I know: this is supposed to be the Top 10 Bowie movies. But what are music videos other than mini-movies, and perhaps the finest music video ever made is that for Bowie’s 1980 single, Ashes to Ashes, in which he appeared as one of his beloved Pierrot dolls/mimes. (After the success of Space Oddity, Bowie spent the next two years trying and failing to repeat it, and sought solace and inspiration in the mime and dance classes of his idol, Lindsay Kemp.) Even more importantly, being a natural if oblique storyteller, Bowie used both the Ashes to Ashes song and video to complete the story of his first great artistic creation, the astronaut Major Tom, by revealing that, like Bowie himself, he had become a junkie.
7. BASQUIAT (1996, Directed by Julian Schnabel, Written by Julian Schnabel, Lech J. Majewski and John Bowe)
Julian Schnabel’s biopic of his friend and fellow New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is not a great film, but it does feature perhaps the greatest Bowie cameo performance of them all (and there is an argument to be made that Bowie is the greatest performer of cameo roles in cinematic history) as his own artistic idol and inspiration, Andy Warhol, the father of Pop Art whose most famous artistic “son” (even more than Lou Reed, whose band, The Velvet Underground, he managed) was surely Bowie himself.
6. ZOOLANDER (2001, Directed by Ben Stiller, Written by Drake Sather, Ben Stiller and John Hamburg)
In addition to his numerous cameos as other people, towards the end of his career Bowie seemed to delight in deliberately self-mocking cameos as himself, including in Ricky Gervais’s Extras. Perhaps the most perfect example of the “Bowie self-cameo” is in Ben Stiller’s marvellous male model comedy, Zoolander, in which Bowie oversees the “walk-off” between Stiller’s Derek Zoolander and his arch-rival, Hansel McDonald, played by Owen Wilson. When Zoolander and McDonald are attempting to draw up the rules for their ridiculous runway contest, Bowie appears from nowhere to ask if he can be “of service”, and eventually ends up disqualifying Zoolander when he fails to match McDonald’s coup de gras of removing his underwear without taking off his trousers and instead gives himself a giant wedgie.
The scene, besides being very funny, is also emblematic of the “elder artistic statesman” role that Bowie seemed to revel in as he grew older. Even Punks, who were so dismissive of rock’s old guard (as The Clash put it, “No Beatles, Stones or Elvis in 1977”), would ask themselves, “What would Bowie do?”, when they were contemplating their next move, and of course the New Romantics of the early 1980s were ultimately just Bowie clones. Martin Scorsese also exploited this aspect of Bowie as judge or arbiter when he cast him as Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ, but it is as himself in Zoolander that Bowie, the man who did as much as anyone to place fashion at the centre of modern culture, gives his finest performance as the guide to all things cool.
5. CHRISTIANE F. (1981, Directed by Uli Edel, Written by Herman Weigel, Kai Hermann and Horst Rieck, based on the autobiography of the same name by Christiane Vera Felscherinow)
Christiane F. was the shocking autobiography by Christiane Vera Felscherinow that told the story of how she became a teenage heroin addict and prostitute in the West Berlin of the late 1970s. Of course, that period is arguably Bowie’s greatest period as a musician, during which he completed his fabled “Berlin Trilogy” of albums, including Heroes, the title-track of which is probably his greatest song (and consequently a contender for the title of greatest song ever).
In the book and the film, the teenage Christane F. is besotted by Bowie (like most Western and, one imagines Eastern European youth of the 1970s), and Bowie himself appears singing “Station to Station” at a concert that she attends, which is one of her few moments of escape from her utterly bleak reality. It is that concert footage of Bowie that makes this one of the great Bowie movies. Ostensibly, it is a record of Bowie in Berlin during his Berlin period; in reality, it was filmed in New York, where Bowie was appearing as The Elephant Man on Broadway, and the footage of the crowd is actually footage from an AC/DC concert. As a great dissembler himself, Bowie presumably enjoyed the irony of this apparently authentic-looking fakery.
4. ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS (1973, Directed by D.A. Pennebaker)
The only rival to Berlin in the late 70s for “Bowie’s greatest musical era” is that of London in the early 1970s, which is also captured on film (at much greater length) by the legendary documentary maker, D.A. Pennebaker, who had done so much to create the visual imagery of Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back nearly 10 years earlier. Apparently, Pennebaker had been largely unaware of Bowie’s music until he came to London, but on seeing Bowie perform he knew that he had found another star to capture on celluloid, and he consequently filmed Bowie’s last performance as Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon on 3 July 1973.
Ziggy’s swansong is perhaps the most famous “final concert” in history (even more so than The Band’s Last Waltz three years later) and it is certainly the most contentious, as Bowie’s band members (“The Spiders”), who included his first great musical foil, guitarist Mick Ronson, only found out, like the audience, that it was Bowie’s last appearance as “the alien superstar” when he announced it on-stage. It was the best (or perhaps worst) example of Bowie’s “scorched earth” approach to his own stardom, whereby he ruthlessly dispatched one alter-ego (Ziggy), and those who had helped him to create it (Ronson and the other Spiders), so that he could create another (Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke et al). Since the announcement of his death, Bowie has rightly been celebrated as a truly great artist, but like many great artists he could sometimes be seemingly inhumane in his treatment of his artistic collaborators.
3. MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE (1983, Directed by Nagisa Oshima, Written by Nagisa Oshima and Paul Mayersberg, based on The Seed and the Sower by Laurens van der Post)
After appearing on Broadway in the early 1980s as John Merrick, “The Elephant Man”, Bowie was chosen to play the lead in a Japanese PoW drama based on the wartime experiences of the Afrikaans author Laurens Jan van der Post. Presumably Bowie hoped that it would finally open the door to the career as a true cinematic leading man (one of the many artistic careers he had dreamed of having), but that did not prove to be the case. Nevertheless, it is a fine film and Bowie’s performance in it is probably his best in a “straight” (an entirely inappropriate term to use in relation to Bowie) acting role.
What is perhaps more interesting than the film itself is its soundtrack by the Japanese pop star and composer, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and in particular the track, “Forbidden Colours”, which was sung by the former lead singer of the group Japan, David Sylvian, and which became a considerable worldwide hit. Sylvian was the ultimate “child of Bowie” (indeed, he was arguably even more physically beautiful than Bowie himself) and his performance on “Forbidden Colours” is perhaps the best example of a conscious imitator of a great star matching, or even outdoing, the star they are imitating.
2. CRACKED ACTOR (1974, BBC Documentary presented by Alan Yentob)
The BBC film-maker Alan Yentob was almost the Boswell to Bowie’s Doctor Johnson, filming interviews with him throughout his career, culminating in one of the most important contributions to Yentob’s Imagine series of films about art and artists, during which Bowie spoke at length about his “cut-up” approach to writing (more of which below). However, the finest of these films is undoubtedly Cracked Actor, which caught Bowie at the absolute height of his stardom (and consequently the depths of his cocaine psychosis) in America in the mid-70s.
Bowie, who almost completely cleaned up his act, so to speak, as he got older later spoke of his own bewilderment at seeing his younger, drug-addled self being caught so dramatically on camera, but being Bowie he never disowned this previous incarnation of himself. Indeed, it is entirely possible that he envied the solipsism and sheer self-containment of the Bowie caught in Cracked Actor. And the title is perhaps the best way to describe Bowie’s acting career, particularly on film. He was genuinely too “cracked”, too disturbed and simply too interesting to play any role other than a version of himself. On stage, in videos and most importantly in his music, Bowie could be almost anyone and everyone, from Ziggy to The Thin White Duke to Major Tom (as both astronaut and drug addict), but on film he could never quite conceal the cracks in his own persona that allowed the daylight, and the watching world, in.
1. THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976, Directed by Nicolas Roeg, Written by Paul Mayersberg, based on the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis)
This is it – perhaps the one true masterpiece of Bowie’s cinematic career (unlike the many musical masterpieces he created, particularly in his golden years between 1970 and 1980), but what a masterpiece it is. The Man Who Fell To Earth is one of the strangest and most compelling films ever made, and it gave Bowie the cinematic alter-ego that he had always dreamed of creating.
Much of the credit for that must surely go to the great Nicolas Roeg, who six years earlier had elicited from Mick Jagger the only truly great cinematic performance of his acting career in the gangster-meets-pop star drama, Performance (another almost unclassifiable masterpiece). Roeg had been inspired to choose Bowie as his “alien” (who comes to Earth to try to save his planet only to be enticed by the earthly vices of sex, alcoholism and TV) after seeing him in Cracked Actor, and certainly the two mid-70s films (one ostensibly a documentary, the other a sci-fi movie, but in reality astonishing similar works) deserve to be seen as the two sides of the Bowie screen persona: beautiful but strange; unsettling but oddly calm; and both visually ravishing.
Clearly, the role of Thomas Jerome Newton exerted a considerable hold on Bowie, arguably more so than any of his musical alter-egos, because in addition to his final album, Blackstar, his last artistic work was to contribute the music (and doubtless, many ideas) to an off-Broadway production of Lazarus, a “sort-of” sequel to The Man Who Fell To Earth. Like all things Bowie, it will surely receive even more attention now he has died, and one imagines that it won’t be long before Bowie is, fittingly, back on Broadway.
Final Musings (or BOWIE’S INFLUENCE ON WRITING, INCLUDING SCREENWRITING)
David Bowie was probably the closest thing to a true polymath that the world has seen in the last four or five decades, and his incalculable influence on modern popular culture – from music to fashion, from sexual mores to cinema – has rightly been celebrated in the 24 hours or so since his passing. However, there is one area of his work where the spotlight has not quite so keenly been trained, and that is his influence on modern writing, including screenwriting.
Bowie was probably the most famous proponent of William Burroughs’s famous “cut-up” technique to writing, whereby newspapers or magazines are literally cut up and then reconstituted to find new and previously unsuspected meanings. He used the technique throughout his life, demonstrating it for his great chronicler Alan Yentob on several occasions, and even went so far as to collaborate in the creation of a piece of computer software, called “the Verbasizer”, which could produce cut-ups on an industrial scale.
The irony is, of course, that this may have been the one area where the great seer Bowie was not quite as prescient as he was in every other aspect of his artistic life, because there was no real need to create such a piece of software. It already exists in every computer, and is the common or garden “cut and paste” function. Burroughs and his acolyte Bowie used the “cut-up” approach, but apparently not even they foresaw the “cut and paste” century that we find ourselves in, whereby seemingly every aspect of human activity (including artistic activity) can be cut up and pasted together to create new writing, new language and new meaning.