“Me and rock’n’roll have parted company,” David Bowie declared to The Sunday Times in 1975. “Now I’m going to be a film director. I’ve always been a screenwriter. My songs have just been practice for scripts.”
It was a characteristically bold statement from Bowie: gloriously pretentious, eminently quotable and hilariously wrong. While he went on to amass a fascinating body of work as a screen actor, he never did move into writing or directing films.
But this premature news of a career change from music to film did illuminate a deeper truth about Bowie’s attitude to his art as an essentially cinematic form, heavily visual and knowingly artificial. An aspiring actor before scoring his pop breakthrough, the embryonic glam-rock icon’s early 1970s albums are peppered with knowing allusions to silver screens, cracked actors and gaudy soundstage glamour. No musician before Bowie had so fully explored the concept of pop star as fictional movie protagonist, stage performance as scripted drama, music as cinema.
As a screen actor, Bowie went on to work with some heavyweight filmmaking maestros, including Nicolas Roeg, Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan. In his handful of producer credits, he favoured more obscure world cinema, lending his support to small features such as Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi’s Magic Hunter (1994), an oddball operatic fable starring Gary Kemp and Sadie Frost.
But as a film fan, Bowie displayed more Catholic tastes, stretching from the avant-garde fringes to golden-age Hollywood and classic British comedy. “He loved Buñuel, Cocteau, Fassbinder, but he also loved Tony Hancock and the Ealing comedies,” recalled Absolute Beginners director Julien Temple in Empire magazine in 2017. “He could watch Tony Hancock’s The Rebel on a weekly basis and he would laugh and laugh and laugh.”
Bowie’s movie choices were eclectic and often wayward, but he had a wide knowledge and voracious cultural curiosity. Curating a programme of Spanish and Latin American films for New York City’s High Line arts festival in in 2007, he served up a a century-spanning feast including Brazilian director Mário Peixoto’s avant-garde masterpiece Limite (1931), Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Cuban cult classic Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) and Victor Erice’s bewitching Spanish coming-of-age drama The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Bowie’s notes for the programme gushed with enthusiasm for old favourites and new discoveries alike. “I could call this selection ‘One Hundred Years of Look What I’ve Found’,” he wrote.
But Bowie’s relationship with cinema was not just as passive consumer. He also purposely drew on films for musical, visual and dramatic inspiration. Indeed, his 1969 breakthrough single ‘Space Oddity’ was a direct response to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a spectacular psychedelic opus about a stranded astronaut undergoing a mystical evolutionary rebirth on the far fringes of our solar system. Bowie would later claim Kubrick’s trippy inner-space voyage “predicted my lifestyle for the 70s”. Even the astronaut’s name, David Bowman, felt like an uncanny echo from a parallel universe.
“In England, it was always presumed that it was written about the space landing because it kind of came to prominence around the same time,” Bowie told Performing Songwriter magazine in 2003. “But it actually wasn’t. It was written because of going to see the film 2001, which I found amazing. I was out of my gourd anyway, I was very stoned when I went to see it, several times, and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing. It was picked up by British television and used as the background music for the landing itself. I’m sure they really weren’t listening to the lyric at all.”
Kubrick’s next film arguably had an even more profound effect on Bowie. Based on the Anthony Burgess novel, A Clockwork Orange (1971) starred Malcolm McDowell as Alex, the charismatic young leader of an ultraviolent gang of delinquent ‘droogs’ running wild in a dystopian near-future Britain. The film would reverberate through pop and rock culture for decades, with Bowie leading the way, borrowing snippets of Alex’s Russian-derived ‘nadsat’ street slang and stylised glam-yob uniform for his widescreen 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. He even began blasting the film’s soundtrack of classical music, ominously rewired by electronic composer Wendy Carlos, ahead of his performances on the Ziggy tour.
Bowie later acknowledged the influence of A Clockwork Orange on the proto-punk street gangs that people his 1974 post-Ziggy album Diamond Dogs. Even right at the end of his career, he again reaffirmed the enduring impact of Kubrick’s most controversial film with ‘Girl Loves Me’, a track on his swansong 2016 album Blackstar, which is peppered with ‘nadsat’ words like malchick, viddy and yarbles.
On a lighter note, Bowie was a huge comedy fan, acting on screen alongside a stellar gallery of screen clowns including Spike Milligan, Peter Cook, Eric Idle and Ricky Gervais. He particularly loved the silent-era Hollywood comedian Buster Keaton, crediting the stone-faced star of The General (1926) as an influence on his own mannered performance style. “There’s still a lot of Buster Keaton in everything I do,” he told Rolling Stone in 1979.
Bowie was thrilled to learn that Steve Schapiro, one of his official photographers during his mid-70s prime, had actually worked with Keaton. “When David heard that I had photographed Buster Keaton, one of his greatest heroes, we instantly became friends,” Schapiro writes in his 2016 photo anthology, Bowie. One of his famous images captured the singer holding up a Keaton biography and mimicking his deadpan frown. Many years later, Bowie paid further homage to Keaton by impersonating him in the video to his 1993 single ‘Miracle Goodnight’.
Bowie’s background in painting and visual art also helped shape his cinematic tastes. One of his earliest skewed tribute songs was ‘Andy Warhol’, on the 1971 album Hunky Dory, which imagined the legendary New York painter and filmmaker as a “standing cinema”, a living screen test, a kind of pop-art Norma Desmond permanently posed for his close-up. Decades later Bowie would do a knowingly comical, wobbly-wigged impersonation of Warhol himself for another painter-director friend when he co-starred in Julian Schnabel’s art-world biopic Basquiat (1996). This was art imitating art, a performance of a performance.
Even as his rock fame blossomed in the mid-70s, Bowie periodically challenged audiences with his avant-garde film tastes. The 1976 Isolar tour, which introduced the singer’s glacially aloof ‘Thin White Duke’ persona, opened with a screening of the revolutionary silent short Un chien andalou (1929), a collaboration between director Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí that is full of surreal nightmare imagery, including a notorious eye-slicing shot.
The Isolar tour’s starkly lit monochrome stage design borrowed from another of Bowie’s enduring cinematic obsessions, German expressionism. After first seeing Robert Weine’s classic silent horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) as an impressionable teenager, Bowie developed a lifelong passion for the expressionist painters and filmmakers that flourished in Germany’s prewar Weimar Republic.
“He never forgot Dr Caligari,” critic and author Paul Morley wrote in a 2016 Guardian essay on Bowie’s silent-age roots. “The mysterious, menacing Carnival man, the drunkenly askew streets and buildings, the make-up of the sleepwalking fortune teller, the unnerving predictions of death.” Flashbacks to Caligari, Morley wrote, “would occur for the rest of his life, represented through the mutant characters he played, the art and entertainment he designed and enacted, the unconventional life he lived. He never escaped their shadows, and the light they threw on the darkness of the mind.”
Bowie’s 1970s interviews are peppered with references to silent-era directors, including F.W. Murnau, G.W. Pabst and Fritz Lang. Speaking to Creem magazine in 1975, he described his movie tastes as “mostly pre-1930 German films. They’re very stylised, that’s the kind of film I like, but no one makes them like that now.”
Caligari may have left a deep impression, but it was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) that had the greater impact on Bowie’s own creative work. As early as 1970, Bowie paid homage to Lang’s visionary urban future-shock fable with the original punning title of his third album, ‘Metrobolist’, which he switched to The Man Who Sold the World under pressure from his label. Later, when Bowie came to conceive his Diamond Dogs album, he took direct inspiration from Lang’s film in both the dystopian setting and the towering cityscape set design for his subsequent live tour.
“We saw Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and David was in awe of it,” Bowie’s lover and muse Amanda Lear told the Miami News in 1978. “He rented the film and ran it over and over again in his house. And that’s where Diamond Dogs came from – the whole staging and album and everything, Bowie got from Metropolis.”
At the end of his 1976 tour, Bowie settled in Berlin. As he explained to Uncut magazine in 2001, he partly chose his new location because this was the city “where Metropolis and Caligari had originated” and was the “spiritual home” of expressionism. “It was an art form that mirrored life not by event but by mood,” he added. “This was where I felt my work was going.”
During his three-year Berlin exile, Bowie made some of the most experimental, emotionally charged music of his career, most notably his 1977 “Heroes” album. He also accepted an invitation from actor-director David Hemmings to star in Just a Gigolo (1978), an ill-fated period drama set during the prewar expressionist period he so admired. During the shoot, he would hand out biographies of Fritz Lang to minor crew members.
A few years later, Bowie even tried to buy the rights to Metropolis, with the intention of creating a newly scored and restored version. But he was outbid by his sometime studio collaborator, the legendary Eurodisco godfather Giorgio Moroder, who released his own colourised musical remix of Lang’s film in 1984.
On occasion, Bowie’s appreciation for cult filmmakers blossomed into a two-way street of mutual admiration and collaboration. As an early champion of David Lynch’s experimental debut feature Eraserhead (1977), he helped to elevate it from obscure midnight movie to cult classic. In early 1980, Bowie informed Melody Maker that one of his hopes for the new decade was “to own a personal copy of Eraserhead”.
Even before they met, Lynch and Bowie had clear common ground artistically. Both moved fluidly between music and visual media. Both shared a love of expressionism, surrealism, avant-garde methods and occult mysticism. Coincidentally, both had been drawn to the tragic true story of the ‘Elephant Man’, Joseph Merrick, with Bowie playing him on Broadway in 1980 while Lynch put his life on screen the same year.
It was perhaps inevitable that Bowie would end up working with Lynch, making a memorably bizarre cameo as rogue FBI agent Phillip Jeffries in the prequel spin-off movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). Bowie collaborated with the director again by providing the opening song, ‘I’m Deranged’, for his psycho-noir horror film Lost Highway (1997). Lynch later invited Bowie to reprise the role of Jeffries for his Twin Peaks revival miniseries, which aired in 2017, but the singer declined. His explanation was initially vague but all became clear on his death in January 2016.
“He was unique, like Elvis was unique,” Lynch told Pitchfork in 2017. “There’s something about him that’s so different from everybody else. I only met him during the time I worked with him and just a couple of other times, but he was such a good guy, so easy to talk to and regular. I just wish he was still around and that I could work with him again.”
Just as cinema shaped Bowie, so Bowie shaped cinema. Actors and directors including Pedro Almodóvar, Tilda Swinton, Wes Anderson, Todd Haynes, Sally Potter, Leos Carax, Baz Luhrmann and Taika Waititi have all drawn from his cinematic music, alien glamour and fearlessly queer creative spirit. Even films that Bowie had no direct involvement in, such as Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996), benefited from his indirect patronage.
“Bowie is a huge influence on my movies, and on me personally,” Boyle told Fast Company magazine in 2013. The director credits Bowie as being “absolutely pivotal” to Trainspotting by helping to secure the Iggy Pop and Lou Reed tracks on the soundtrack. “Bowie worked his magic behind the scenes because, of course, he knows those guys.”
Bowie’s cinephile legacy lives on in his own son, film director Duncan Jones, who credits his late father for nurturing his childhood love of sci-fi cinema and fantasy literature. Bowie took Duncan to see A Clockwork Orange at a young age, and brought him on set when he was starring in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). His directing debut, Moon (2009), about spooky happenings on a remote lunar base, feels inescapably indebted not just to his father’s music but also to the cult films that inspired him.
“Moon was certainly in no way a conscious reflection of what my dad had done,” Jones insisted in a 2009 LA Times interview. “But there’s no getting away from the fact that I grew up around the same things that were informing him.”
David Bowie was more than just a film fan; he used the potent myths and stylistic methods of cinema as artistic rocket fuel. In turn, the movie world borrowed elements of Bowie’s own kaleidoscopic creative vision. In ways far deeper than his own modest filmography of acting and soundtrack credits, his legacy will always be hooked to the silver screen.
“He left behind a remarkable body of work,” Martin Scorsese told Entertainment Weekly in 2016. “He was one of those extraordinary artists that come along so rarely. There’s a song on his album Low called ‘Speed of Life’ and that’s the speed at which he seemed to move. His music and his image and his focus were always changing, always in motion, and with every movement, every change, he left a deep imprint on the culture.”
David Bowie: Starman and the Silver Screen, which also includes a selection of films that influenced Bowie, runs at BFI Southbank throughout January 2022.
Originally published: 4 January 2022