David Bowie’s relationship to cinema and acting was characteristically complex and knotty even before he started: He famously had to change his name from Davy Jones because there was already a British actor with that name making major waves in music as part of the mega-hit TV manufactured band, the Monkees.
For an artist who transformed rock and roll music to great acclaim and financial rewards, David Bowie’s work as an actor never matched the notoriety and success of his recordings and concerts. But Bowie accomplished a feat that eluded Elvis and many other pantheon rockers who attempted to crossover from rock stardom to films and starred in a movie that has endured as a legitimate work of art: Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 sci-fi masterwork, “The Man Who Fell To Earth.” (The other contender for that distinction is Mick Jagger, whose “Performance” is ranked as a masterwork of British and cinema and was co-directed by Roeg, with the late Donald Cammell.)
As Variety’s Alex Romanelli noted upon the Criterion Collection BluRay release of “Earth” in 2005, the film was almost completely dismissed when originally released, but three decades later it was easy to see its astounding virtues as a groundbreaking, if unorthodox sci-fi film and to deem Roeg’s telling of the tale of a forlorn space-traveller as “timeless.” It also was enduring for Bowie himself, who used the source material of the novel it was based upon for his last major theatrical piece, “Lazarus,” which premiered last year.
In addition to restoring an essential 20 minutes that had been excised from the original commercial release, the Criterion “Earth” also collected an audio commentary by Bowie that had been done for a 1992 laser-disc release.
In a reflection of how art imitates life, and vice versa, Roeg, in a filmed interview in the aftermath of the movie’s release, talked about casting the film’s central character, Thomas Jerome Newton, whom he described as “someone who was inside society and yet awkward in it.”
“During the making of the film,” Roeg said, “David got more than into the character Mr. Newton, he put much more of himself in it than we had been able to get into the script. It was linked very much to his ideas in his music. Towards the end I realized a big change had happened in his life.”
Bowie, conversely, said that “I took some of the character of Newton away with me from ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth.’ The thing that I remember objectively taking with me was the wardrobe. I literally walked off with the clothes. And I used the same clothes on the ‘Station to Station’ tour.”
If “Earth” were Bowie’s only imprint upon cinema, his film career could be deemed a lucky accident. But as followers of his work have always known, theatrically was an essential weapon in Bowie’s awesome arsenal of creative skills. Having been a student of the legendary mime, Lindsay Kemp, Bowie utilized those lessons to inform his stage show and as the MTV era dawned, his cutting edge work in music videos often prominently featured the fruits of that collaboration.
D.A. Pennebaker, who filmed the concert documentary “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars,” talked about Bowie’s inherent theatricality during the making of that film.
“It was such an amazing display of something I couldn’t imagine,” he said, “and we put it together and made a film.
“The camera is such an amazing invention that you can point it at something and it won’t lie. And people who are performers, especially, they know when it’s going to be forever; it kind of lifts them off the ground, and it’s incredible what they can do to make that work.”
Director David Mallett made good use of Bowie’s time with Kemp in the “Ashes to Ashes” music video (1980), which at the time was the highest-budgeted music video ever produced. From the album “Scary Monsters,” the video featured Bowie as a bizarre clown surrounded by key figures of the London and Birmingham “New Romantics” music scene of that moment.
A few years later, Bowie added another string to his acting bow by making the move into what might be called “legitimate” acting in legendary auteur Nagisa Oshima’s woefully underseen WWII POW drama, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (1983) which debuted in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9IDoAPC6Ps The Hunger
That same year, Bowie and Catherine Deneuve played a delicious duo of world-weary vampires in Tony Scott’s hugely influential (but again commercially thwarted) thriller “The Hunger.”
Jim Henson’s 1986 family fantasy film, “Labyrinth,” is perhaps Bowie’s best known film role, again cast in an otherworldly part as Jareth the Goblin King.” But again, the film did not score commercially. And Bowie’s work as a lead in films was virtually over by the time he co-starred in another terrific, but financially bedeviled auteur work that same year, Julien Temple’s ebullient and imaginative musical “Absolute Beginners.”
Temple said in an email to Variety, “I’m sad but somehow strangely happy today, because I think David has created such a powerful gift to us all in the way he designed his exit. I am missing him deeply like most other people in the world. He was not just a pop star — rather a human emancipator on the Bolívar and Mandela scale. A freedom fighter for the lost, the misfits, the outsiders, all the lonely people worldwide that Roy Orbison sung about too. All those teenagers in each generation who might not be sure of who, or what, they might possibly be — or become. In other words all of us. He was also the patron saint of risk!”
Bowie did, however, continue to take on several incredibly challenging supporting roles playing iconic characters from Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s “Basquiat” (1996) to Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” (2006).
For an artist whom the term “meta” seems designed for, Bowie as Bowie also astonished and entertained. His drug woes of the time were front and center in Alan Yentob’s 1975 “Cracked Actor” documentary for the British “Omnibus” series, as well as Pennebaker’s 1973 “Ziggy Stardust” stand as honest, vital documents of the era and his oeuvre. Bowie was also seen as Bowie beautifully spoofing his image as stylish, urbane pop culture icon in Ben Stiller’s hit comedy, “Zoolander” (2001).
As with so much of Bowie’s body of creative work, time is the best friend to those who spend their lives running ahead of the curve. David Bowie’s film resume has no hits, but an astonishing track record of durable, valuable performances in an impressive number of truly first-rate, cutting-edge films.