Rock stars in movies have always been more of a novelty than anything else. Elvis clearly wanted to be taken seriously as an actor, but his movies served as softball vehicles to sell soundtracks. Mick Jagger’s dissolute rock star in “Performance” (1970) capitalized on his Mephistophelean public persona at the time, but veering from that image didn’t work in his favor in subsequent films. And Prince did an effective job playing himself in “Purple Rain,” only to spoil that good will with the misguided “Under the Cherry Moon.”
David Bowie’s movie career, however, reveals a more chameleonic nature that’s in line with his various music identities, from late ’60s modster to Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke and beyond. His film work will be on display Aug. 2-8 in New York when the Film Society of Lincoln Center presents “Watch That Man: David Bowie, Movie Star.”
If there’s a through line in Bowie’s film canon it’s the ability to transform himself from role to role, which might have something to do with an androgynous appeal that has served him well as a performer, no matter what the medium. The weeklong series at Lincoln Center lays it out in comprehensive fashion, from his gender-bending, stranger-in-a-strange land performance as an alien in Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976) to his real-life portrayals of a mincing Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s “Basquiat” (1996) and elegant scientific visionary Nicola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” (2006).
There’s also a healthy dose of Bowie playing Bowie in the documentary “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars — The Motion Picture,” which chronicled Bowie’s 1973 U.K. tour; “Cracked Actor,” which captured the 1974 “Diamond Dogs” tour; and the video compilation “David Bowie: The Music Videos 1979-2013.” There’s also the collaboration with Julian Temple, who cut his teeth directing music vids for the likes of Bowie, in Temple’s homage to late ’50s bohemian London, “Absolute Beginners.”
And for those who appreciate the more rare the better, there’s the U.S. premiere of BBC-TV’s adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s first play “Baal” (1982), in which Bowie plays the title role as the debauched artist-poet.
Film Comment editor-in-chief Gavin Smith, who described Bowie as “one of the first music artists to harness the potential of the music video in the pre-MTV era,” says that Bowie’s film roles “set up an intriguing and unique dialogue with his shape-shifting image as a musical performer.”
All screenings will take place at the Walter Reade Theater. Visit http://www.FilmLinc.com for more info.