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R.I.P. David Bowie: An Appreciation

January 13, 2016

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Throughout history, there have been great artists whose work has been all of a piece; each movie, novel, song, or what have you, has been essentially the same each time. There might be some slight variation in place, but you could still recognize it as distinctly theirs. Then there are the artists who change their style (for lack of a better word) every time they release a new work. In certain circles, this is seen as being a dilettante, or as someone who can’t make up their mind, but I see it as having an adventurous spirit, of not wanting to repeat themselves. Few artists epitomized this adventurous spirit more than David Bowie, who passed away on January 10 (two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his final album, Blackstar) after a long bout with cancer. Throughout his music career, he went through numerous personas (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke) and musical styles (glam rock, soul – or as he dubbed it, “plastic soul” – industrial music), and put his own stamp on them while remaining true to the impulse that led him to stretch himself in that direction in the first place. Others have written, and will write, in more detail about his music career, but I’d like to concentrate on his film career. Although he wasn’t exactly prolific in that department, only making 21 feature-length movies in his career, and I’ve only seen a handful of them, his choices suggest the same daring and restless spirit that characterized his music.

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As the title character in The Man who Fell to Earth.

Though he had a small part in the 1969 war comedy The Virgin Soldiers, and had made a couple of shorts as well, Bowie’s real film break came in 1976, with Nicolas Roeg’s The Man who Fell to Earth. I’ve already written about that film, but it’s important to point out this could easily have just been a film exploiting the alien persona Bowie had cultivated to that point. After all, the plot is about an alien, going under the alias Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie), who visits Earth, starts a technology conglomerate, falls in love with a hotel maid (Candy Clark), and becomes targeted by the U.S. government. But what Roeg and writer Paul Mayersberg (adapting the novel by Walter Tevis) do with this instead is to emphasize how alienated Newton himself is from Earth, despite the ways he does seem to embrace it; his pursuit of money, his constant watching of old movies on TV, and the way he drowns his sorrows in alcohol (mirroring Bowie’s own real-life drug addiction at the time). And in the end, instead of the alien leaving a message for earth, or turning on it, Newton is betrayed by almost everyone he’s close to (even Clark’s character). So instead of exploiting his persona, Bowie turned to a filmmaker, and a story, about that persona being exploited, showing both his daring and his savvy even then. And while inexperienced as an actor, Bowie does show both the business savvy that allows him to make so much money, as well as the physical and emotional vulnerability of his character, and holds his own with actors like Clark and Rip Torn.

I’ve never seen Just a Gigolo, Bowie’s follow-up film, where he plays a WWI soldier returning to his home in Berlin (made during Bowie’s Berlin album trilogy), but while it had an interesting group of people involved (David Hemmings directed, and Bowie’s co-stars included Hemmings, Marlene Dietrich and Kim Novak), Bowie apparently didn’t think much of it; in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1987, he claimed everyone knew it was bad while they were making it, and it seems to have been largely forgotten today (it’s never been released on DVD). Although it was also a flop upon release, Bowie’s next film, The Hunger, has become a cult film, thanks to its subject matter (vampires), as well as the fact it was the first feature film directed by the late Tony Scott, who followed this up with the smash hit Top Gun. Bowie plays a lover of a vampire queen (Catherine Deneuve), and as with The Man who Fell to Earth, his character is sickly, though here, it’s because of lack of blood. Along with his bleached-out look, Bowie gives his character a hoarse voice, and it fits the character. The movie, unfortunately, is more interested in flashy surfaces than anything else, and the promising work Bowie and co-star Susan Sarandon (as a medical researcher who gets involved with Bowie and Deneuve) gets lost amidst the flash. The other major movie Bowie was involved in that year was Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, and I have to admit I couldn’t warm up to this one either, although it also plays off of Bowie’s persona and showed his willingness at the same time to take chances. Here, he’s a British POW at a Japanese camp during WWII who finds himself strangely drawn to Captain Yonoi (Ryuchi Sakamoto), the commander. Bowie is convincing as a soldier, does his best not to appear “modern”, and is willing to follow Oshima’s depiction of the homoerotic overtones of the story (in real life, Bowie declared in the 70’s he was bisexual, though he sometimes tried to walk that back, at one point – in an interview with Life magazine – asserting instead he was a “trisexual – I’ll try anything once”), but Oshima’s style here, as in his controversial In the Realm of the Senses, leaves me cold.

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As a hitman menacing Jeff Goldblum in Into the Night.

Bowie was a friend of Eric Idle’s, which led him to make a brief cameo that same year in Yellowbeard, opposite Idle and Madeline Khan (in his novel Road to Mars, Idle models a robot character after Bowie’s persona from his Let’s Dance period, and Idle apparently wanted Bowie to play the part if it was ever filmed, but it never was). And while I have no proof of this, after watching Bowie in John Landis’ would-be comedy/thriller Into the Night, I’d swear Bowie played the role of a hitman by asking, “What if Idle’s ‘Nudge Nudge’ character was a psychotic instead of just a desperate virgin?”It’s not just the dialogue, but Bowie’s inflections when he’s saying things like “Very good” like Idle did in the Python sketch. Bowie manages to bring a jolt of energy to the proceedings, and manages to be both funny and dangerous, even in scenes like getting in a knife fight with a rival hitman (Carl Perkins, of all people).

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Performing “That’s Motivation” in Absolute Beginners.

In later years, Bowie would disparage the music he made during the 80’s after Let’s Dance, calling it his “Phil Collins” years – he disliked the fact he was trying to cash in on his success, and wasn’t taking the chances he had taken in the 70’s. I hope he didn’t include the music he made for Absolute Beginners and Labyrinth in that judgment, because the music he wrote for both movies is, I think, some of the most enjoyable music he’s ever done. I’m also a big fan of both movies, and him in them as well. In the former, based on the Colin MacInnes novel about British youth in the late 50’s, he plays Vendice, a corrupt businessman who tempts Colin (Eddie O’Connell), the photographer hero of the story, into selling out. Bowie worked at an ad agency in the 60’s, and apparently based his character on bosses who would affect an American accent, which is why he does so here at times. It can get distracting while you’re watching, but it’s mitigated by the rest of the film (which, while being the rare film that could be said to have too many ideas, is energetically made by director Julien Temple) and by Bowie’s songs. He performs the title track, a lovely and affecting jazz-tinged mid-tempo ballad, and also the song “That’s Motivation”, where he entices Colin, and also gets to dance (adequately) on a typewriter (he also croons “Volare” at one point). Because the movie was taken away from Temple in the editing room, there’s no way of telling whether Bowie had a bigger role, especially when he’s revealed as being the main person behind the part that drives the second half of the movie (driving all of the immigrants out of Notting Hill, where Colin lives), but for the time he’s on-screen, Bowie is convincingly seductive, plastic, and devilish.

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As goblin king Jareth in Labyrinth.

Bowie gets to play evil again in the latter as Jareth, the Goblin King, who takes the baby brother of Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), a fairy-tale loving teenage girl (who had wished the goblins would take her brother away), and then tries to prevent her from getting him back. The movie was the last one directed by Jim Henson, and as with other Henson projects, Bowie (as well as Connelly) interacts with Muppets, in this case the goblins and other creatures. Bowie, who took the movie based on Brian Froud’s designs of these creatures, is clearly having fun with his role, and works well with both Connelly and the other Muppets. Plus, the songs he wrote for the movie are very enjoyable, especially “Underground” (which plays over the opening and closing credits) and “Magic Dance” (the introduction pays off of an exchange in Cary Grant movie The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer), which may not be my favorite Bowie song ever, but is one I will always dance and sing along to. And while the “Bowie is a sex god!” mantra that has apparently become part of some of the fandom of this movie is overdone, there’s also no denying the seductiveness Bowie brings to Jareth, especially in the dream sequence when Sarah, having bitten a poisoned plum, imagines she’s at a ball in which Jareth pursues her and dances with her (while “As the World Falls Down”, another one of the songs Bowie wrote and performed for the movie, plays in the background). At the same time, within the limits of a kids movie (ex-Python Terry Jones, credited with the screenplay, had originally written a darker version of the film), Bowie also never lets you forget Jareth is a bad guy, especially when he’s changing the rules on Sarah.

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As Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ.

Both Absolute Beginners and Labyrinth met with mixed to indifferent reviews and were box-office flops (don’t know what Bowie thought of Labyrinth, but according to the interview I alluded to earlier, he liked Absolute Beginners and saw it achieving cult status). Both of them have developed followings over the years (though for the latter, there’s a group that insists it’s only worth watching as a camp classic, a notion I find noxious), but they effectively killed off any chance of Bowie becoming a movie star, which, in retrospect, seemed like something he didn’t want to pursue anyway. Instead, he continued to work with interesting people and on offbeat projects. Martin Scorsese originally wanted Sting to play the role of Pontius Pilate in his controversial film version of The Last Temptation of Christ, but when that fell through, Bowie stepped into the role when Scorsese was finally able to get the film made. At first, when you’re watching, you might think Bowie’s performance is flat, especially contrasted with the energy from Willem Dafoe as Jesus. However, as a friend of mine pointed out, the conception of Pilate here is of one who is bored with yet another “rebel” being brought in front of him and doesn’t want to make a decision about it. Yet Bowie exudes authority in the scene and is convincing as a ruler. Another tab at a lead role came a few years later in Richard Shepard’s underrated, offbeat comedy The Linguini Incident, where he plays a bartender/con man who has designs on $50,000 left in the safe of the restaurant he works at, but has to compete with Rosanna Arquette (as a waitress/escape artist) and Eszter Balint (a performance artist) for the loot. Though there’s a nominal story (in addition to the plot about the money, Bowie and Arquette fall in love with each other), it’s less important than the characters and the atmosphere Shepard creates (this is the type of movie where Balint tries to hold up the restaurant, then claims it’s part of her act), and Bowie fits in very well, again by underplaying.

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As himself, refereeing the walk-off between Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, in Zoolander.

In addition to music and movies, Bowie was also interested in art, fashion, and technology, which led to three enjoyable cameos. In Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat, his biopic about the controversial graffiti artist (played by Jeffrey Wright), Bowie turned up in a small role as Andy Warhol, who encouraged Basquiat. Bowie, of course, had known Warhol, and captures Warhol’s mannerisms and voice perfectly. He also interacts well with both Wright and Dennis Hopper (as Bruno Bischofberger, an art dealer). And Bowie also showed an ability to laugh at himself by showing up as himself in Ben Stiller’s fashion satire Zoolander, refereeing a walk-off between Stiller and his rival Owen Wilson (“If nobody has any objections, I believe I might be of service”). Finally, in one of his last film appearances, Austin Chick’s August, he plays an investor whom Josh Hartnett alternately woos and insults to try and get money for Hartnett’s dot-com company. Bowie doesn’t have much screen time, but he adds authority to the role, and to the movie. But it was an appearance in another movie about technology (among other things), playing a real-life inventor, that gave him his last great role.

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As Nikolai Tesla in The Prestige.

I’ve already written about The Prestige, but I barely spent any time talking about Bowie’s performance as Nikolai Tesla, the famed rival to Thomas Edison in the quest to harness electrical power. At first, we just know Tesla as this reclusive figure Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), a famed magician (under the name The Great Danton) is trying to get ahold of because he knows Tesla built a machine for his bitter rival Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) for his trick The Transported Man. When Angier goes to visit Tesla at the beginning of the film, Alley (Andy Serkis), Tesla’s assistant, puts him off (though he’s polite about it once he recognizes Angier). Finally, nearly 50 minutes into the film, Tesla appears, and naturally, it’s walking through a mass of electric bolts shooting through the air. As he greets Angier, Tesla tells him how much Alley enthuses about his act, grasps one of Angier’s hands, and then asks him to hold out the other. Alley puts a giant light bulb in Angier’s hand, and immediately, the light bulb comes on. Angier, surprised, asks what’s producing the electricity, and Tesla replies, “Our bodies, Mr. Angier, quite capable of conducting and, indeed, producing energy.” As with so many of Bowie’s other performances, it’s all the better for being underplayed, whether he’s explaining what drives him (“You’re familiar with the phrase ‘man’s reach exceeds his grasp’? It’s a lie; man’s reach exceeds his nerve”) or warning Angier not to let his obsession control him. Bowie only appears in a few scenes in the movie, but somehow, the movie would feel incomplete without him.

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As his Screamin’ Lord Byron character in Jazzin’ For Blue Jean.

Though Bowie may not have had the most prolific movie career, he was as much a visual artist as he was a musical one. Like many other musicians in Britain during the 60’s and 70’s, he was making music videos long before MTV, and while some of them were merely performance clips, even these were made interesting simply how Bowie was dressed for the occasion (looking very much like an alien, for example, while performing “Space Oddity”). Others conveyed the showmanship, sense of humor (“Fashion”), and even the vulnerability (“Ashes to Ashes”) contained in his songs. And when the MTV era came around, he was tuned into that as well, even able to slip messages into his videos;”Let’s Dance”, for example, the title track of his album, looks to make a comment on both consumerism and the treatment of aborigines alongside his rather buoyant tune. Not long after Michael Jackson proved long-form music videos could work with his video for thriller, Bowie and Temple took Bowie’s song “Blue Jean” (from his ill-fated album Tonight) and made a 17 minute short film called Jazzin’ for Blue Jean, where he plays both Screamin’ Lord Byron, a reclusive rock star who might have been one of Bowie’s album characters (he even dresses like one while performing “Blue Jean”), and Vic, a nerdish man who tries to impress his date (Louise Scott) by pretending he “knows” Byron. It’s no more than a trifle, but it’s an amusing one. In that Rolling Stone video, he claimed, however, he was happy to see people turning away from music videos, and seemed to be implying he was getting bored with them. By that time, however, even if Hollywood hadn’t quite embraced him as an actor, they were starting to catch up with his music.

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Greta Gerwig twirling and running to “Modern Love” in Frances Ha.

On Bowie’s IMDb page, it lists over 450 movies, TV shows, awards shows, and so on where his music has been used, and the 80’s is when it started to pick up. Some of it may have been songs Bowie expressly wrote for movies, like the title track of Paul Schrader’s remake/re-imagining of Cat People (more on that in a moment) or the song “This is Not America”, which he did for the movie version of The Falcon and the Snowman. But a lot of it was Bowie’s older music. John Hughes’ use of Bowie’s lyrics in “Changes” to open The Breakfast Club (“And these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds/Are immune to your consultations, they are quite aware of what they are going through”) set the note of defiance for the rest of the film. Both David Fincher and David Lynch found inspiration in Bowie’s turn towards industrial music in the 90’s for their credits sequences, Fincher with “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” in Seven (over the closing credits) and Lynch with “I’m Deranged” in Lost Highway (over both the opening and closing credits). “Under Pressure”, which Bowie co-wrote and co-recorded with Queen, may be overused nowadays, but it still feels fresh to encounter it in the memorable sequence from Grosse Pointe Blank when hitman Martin Blank (John Cusack), having reluctantly gone to his high school reunion, even more reluctantly holds a former classmate’s baby and finds himself thinking about the sanctity of life for a change. Cameron Crowe (who had interviewed Bowie in the 70’s for Playboy) uses Bowie’s version of Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man” for his semi-autobiographical film Almost Famous, in the sequence where Stillwater goes to Cleveland and lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) and guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) indulge themselves in their respective hotel rooms while magazine writer William Miller (Patrick Fugit) – based on Crowe himself – sits glumly, waiting for an interview that will never come. Quentin Tarantino appropriated Bowie’s “Cat People” for his movie Inglourious Basterds in the sequence where Shoshana (Melanie Laurent) gets herself ready to take her revenge on the Nazis for massacring her family. Tarantino would not be the last person to appropriate Bowie’s music for his own purposes; in his film Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach borrows from Leon Carax’s Mauvais Sang in his use of “Modern Love”, with his heroine (Greta Gerwig) running down the streets of Manhattan, just as Denis Lavant had run through the streets of Paris in Carax’s film (with slight differences; Carax shoots long takes in level tracking shots and in color, while Baumbach uses jump cuts and an overhead camera, and shoots in black and while. Also, Gerwig is filled with joy, while Lavant starts out in agony before turning himself over to joyful abandon). And while Joe Wright’s action fairy tale Hanna mostly uses the Chemical Brothers for the score, there’s one great sequence where the title character (Saoirse Ronan) hides out in the camper of the family who’s befriended them, and watches them as they dance around to “Kooks”, showing the camaraderie and family love she’s missed.

But if there’s one film that I would point to as the best example of using Bowie’s music, that would be Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Met with critical derision from many circles when first released – even among those who had been fans of Anderson’s earlier work – it has since rightfully been reappraised. As with other Anderson films, the song choices (as opposed to the score, written by former Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh) are all tied together thematically, but here it’s dominated by Bowie. Instead of just replaying Bowie’s music however, we hear Brazilian musician Seu Jorge’s covers of such Bowie hits as “Starman”, “Five Years”,and “Rebel Rebel” (Jorge, who plays a member of Zissou’s (Bill Murray) crew, performs many of these songs on camera). You might expect this to have a distancing effect on us, especially since Jorge sings them all in Portuguese (he did all the translations himself). But it makes a perfect sense, in a way, to show how Bowie’s music has crossed over into several different cultures, and doubly appropriate in a film set on a vessel that travels all across the globe. Anderson saves the use of the real thing for two memorable sequences. The first is when Zissou meets Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson, like Murray a member of Anderson’s repertory company; he also co-wrote Anderson’s first three films), an airline pilot, at a reception on Zissou’s boat. Plimpton introduces himself and tells Zissou he may in fact be Zissou’s son from a previous relationship, though he admits he doesn’t know for sure. Zissou is overwhelmed by the news (he’s already coming off his declaration that he intends to kill a shark that killed his best friend, played by Seymour Cassel), so he excuses himself and walks up to the ship’s stern to have a cigarette. During their conversation, the instrumental part of Bowie’s “Life on Mars” has been playing, but as Zissou walks up the ship, Bowie’s voice breaks in, underlining the emotional turmoil in Zissou’s heart. Anderson bookends this at the end (in what also serves as an homage to the end credits sequence of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension) with Zissou, leaving the successful premiere of his latest film (in addition to being a ship captain, Zissou, like Jacques Cousteau, is also a documentary filmmaker), walks down the steps to Bowie’s “Queen Bitch”, and as with the film Anderson is paying homage to, Zissou then starts walking down the docks and is joined one by one by members of his crew (Jeff Goldblum, who plays the new husband of Zissou’s ex-wife (Anjelica Huston), was also in Banzai), contrasting the note of melancholy earlier with the note of triumph in this song.

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During his musical career, Bowie was often regarded by the critics as being cold or inward; as Robert Draper wrote in his book Rolling Stone: The Uncensored History, the glam period Bowie participated in was met with both amusement and disdain from the magazine’s music writers. Even other musicians got into the act; in an interview with the magazine for the 20th anniversary, John Fogerty used Bowie’s music as an example of people turning away from the idealism of the 60’s (as well as the desire to make the world a better place). Of course, they were missing the boat; Bowie may have been using irony throughout his many poses (an attitude often misunderstood by American critics of music and movies), but underneath was something that was both heartfelt and, at the same time, allowed, and even invited, you to have a laugh at the absurdity of it all. That’s why so many people were drawn to his music, why his music was so often used in movies, and why, even though he didn’t make many movies, Bowie was able to leave just as indelible mark in them as he did in music.

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