We knew that David Bowie’s death was going to be hard to swallow, but looking back over his work in music, film and television the loss of our hero feels both intensely personal and a body blow to culture in general. Decade by decade, Bowie’s music and his on-screen persona seem to be both ageless and consistent, yet to have evolved or significantly diversified.
1970s documentaries Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (DA Pennebaker, 1973) and Cracked Actor (Alan Yentob 1975) showed us a real-life background of druggy glamour, sexual ambiguity and artistic experimentation. But it was as the suave alien Thomas Jerome Newton in Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) that Bowie’s strange and seductive fictional screen persona – not to mention his exceptional cheekbones – was first and best used to enduring effect. When the film screened outdoors at the British Museum to launch the BFI’s Science Fiction season in 2014, there was an epidemic of swooning by everyone from teenage girls to late middle-aged heterosexual men. Both pitch-perfect and off-kilter, the role of the immortal alien seems prescient and Roeg’s channelling of Bowie’s self-conscious acting style and vocal delivery was never bettered.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
The 1980s were typically profuse and confusing, from Bowie’s Berlin concert footage in the gruelling Christiane F. (1981) through a series of wildly different roles. In Tony Scott’s style-driven vampire film The Hunger (1983) Bowie played a fading lover; in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima, 1982) he was a tormented prisoner of war. In Labyrinth (Jim Henson, 1986) Jareth the Goblin King’s wig and eyebrows both terrified and thrilled audiences of all ages; as advertising executive Vendice Partners in Absolute Beginners (Julien Temple, 1986) Bowie contributed to one of the most vilified films of all time. Rounding off the decade with The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988), Bowie played an English-accented Pontius Pilate with a fringe.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1982)
The Snowman (1982)
Bowie playing the title role in Alan Clarke’s telemovie Brecht adaptation, Baal (1982)
The Hunger (1983)
A small role as a hitman in John Landis’s Into the Night (1985)
Absolute Beginners (1986)
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
In the 1990s Bowie made a cameo appearance in a dream sequence – or was it? – in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (David Lynch, 1992), took the more substantial but ever-thankless part of Andy Warhol in Basquiat (Julian Schnabel, 1996) and appeared alongside Goldie in Andrew Goth’s inde Manchester crime drama Everybody Loves Sunshine (1999).
Twin Peaks Fire Walk with Me (1992)
Everybody Loves Sunshine (1999)
During the 2000s, Bowie had fun in stupid (but great) film and television comedies, enthusiastically playing ‘himself’ judging a walk-off in Zoolander (2001) and pissing into a toaster for art in Nathan Barley (2005), singing ‘Pathetic Little Fat Man’ to Ricky Gervais in Extras (2006) and voicing Lord Royal Highness in Sponge Bob SquarePants (2007).
The Prestige (2006)
Bowie’s music graced more than 450 film and television soundtracks, including Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015). His own music videos led the evolution of the format and continued with his last two albums, The Next Day (2013) and Blackstar (2016), even after Bowie’s other screen appearances had long-since stopped.
Like so many of our great artists, Bowie was also a great fan – of music, film and television – and a known collector of the BFI’s own Flipside DVDs, for example. Even as a global superstar he continued to speak to the outsider in all of us. He made us feel cool, unashamed of our sexuality, imperfections and contradictions and showed us that it was okay to laugh at ourselves and, weirdly, to fail. Because Bowie wasn’t one of the all-time great actors. But he always went for it.
In the Sight & Sound digital archive
The story so far…
Screenwriter Paul Mayersberg on the making of The Man Who Fell to Earth.