Last week, David Bowie released The Next Day, his first album of entirely original music in a decade. That the seemingly retired former glam-space alien suddenly revealed himself to have laid down a full album’s worth of studio sessions in complete secrecy shocked rock journalists and fans of the shape-shifting pop star, inspiring many assessments of Bowie’s career at large and what this album means with respect to it. The Thin White Duke himself seems to be engaging in that exact same conversation, as promotional materials around the album incorporate Bowie’s past iconography: the cover for The Next Day appropriates the 1977 cover of Heroes with a block of white text over it and the word “Heroes” marked out, and the video for the aptly-titled single “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” features a model imitating 1976-era Bowie and a magazine cover featuring a still of Bowie from the film The Man Who Fell to Earth from the same year.
Bowie’s multifaceted personae have become manifest through album covers, live performances, and, of course, his diverse and shifting musical stylings. But Bowie, while hardly a traditional rock star/film star hybrid, has also exercised much of his persona through his selective cinematic appearances, which exhibit his chameleonesque performance capabilities across media. Whether playing a WWI veteran in David Hemmings’s Just a Gigolo, a vampire in Tony Scott’s The Hunger, the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (my childhood introduction to Bowie), Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat, or Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, Bowie articulates his evolving musical persona through the costumes, iconography, and clothing of diverse but familiar characters, figures, and types in cinema.
The Criterion Collection features several of Bowie’s best appearances in films, films with performances that contain many important implications for his musical career and fame. Here’s an overview of those appearances…
The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg 1976)
Nic Roeg was no stranger to inaugurating the narrative film turns of major rock stars, having directed Mick Jagger in his first feature film role as a reclusive, burnt-out rock star in Performance (which was completed in 1968, but wasn’t released until 1970, where it competed with the failure that was Jagger’s second film, the title role in Ned Kelly). Like Jagger, Bowie was no stranger to films when he was cast; both had starred in several rockumentaries and musical performance films by this time. But rather than cast the rock star as a rock star, Roeg cast Bowie as the figure that made Bowie notorious: as an androgynous space alien.
However, The Man Who Fell to Earth – which features Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton, a hyper-intelligent, otherwordly life form who came to Earth disguised as a human in order to become a billionaire and solve his planet’s water shortage – went into production three years after Bowie retired the Ziggy Stardust image.
Bowie’s turn in the film, then, acts as a transition point between Bowie’s past presence (which still shadowed each musical maneuver he made post-Ziggy) and his later iteration as The Thin White Duke for the albums Station to Station and Low, both of which feature promotional stills from The Man Who Fell to Earth as their covers. While the fascinatingly disjointed, strange, idiosyncratically Roeg-esque film was by no means a smash hit in 1976, it marked an important point of transition for Bowie’s musical career. It also marks perhaps the last moment in the interesting history of 1970s American science-fiction cinema before Star Wars. We wouldn’t see an intimate, meandering, strange little film like this in the genre for awhile.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima 1983)
In 1983, Bowie’s musical star image was about as mainstream as it could ever be. After a three-year hiatus following his Berlin trilogy, the now-blonde Bowie released Let’s Dance, the biggest hit album of his career, which launched him firmly into the radioland. At this time, Bowie also appeared opposite Bing Crosby in a Christmas musical special and told “Rolling Stone” that he was never, in fact, gay. Bowie’s musical star construction had never been so decidedly, stagnantly normal.
…Except in movies. The year of Let’s Dance, Bowie starred in two films: Tony Scott’s feature directing debut, the vastly underrated vampire film The Hunger, and Oshima’s largely English-language WWII prisoner-of-war drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. In both films, but especially the latter, Bowie’s characters embody a more-than-human brand of abject sexuality that reinforces the decidedly alien and queer spirit of his public image in the 1970s. In Mr. Lawrence, Bowie plays Celliers, a seemingly ageless British prisoner in a Japanese war camp who is also the object of affection of strict, repressed camp commander played by Japanese rock star Ryuichi Sakamoto (who also scored the film).
So, for both Anglophonic and Japanese audiences, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence featured an iconic pop star playing a sexually fluid role. One of Oshima’s best films, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence presents a brilliant, unconventional use of musical stars that stands both as a relief from and a challenge to the sexually conservative 1980s by exploring same-sex relationships in a war film, one of the most hetero-normative and homoerotic of film genres.
The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese 1988)
Bowie’s screen time in Scorsese’s epic adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s controversial novel lasts less than ten minutes. As Pontius Pilate, Bowie makes a brief but resonant impression, and – through his restraint – creates unlikely pathos for a Biblical character typically portrayed as one-note. After his starring role in 1986’s Labyrinth, Bowie has since only performed in films as supporting characters, creating lasting impressions while his screen time remains on the margins.
It makes sense that, after achieving mainstream stardom in the mid-1980s, he’s able to accomplish this: David Bowie, more than being Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke, has continued his fame as “David Bowie,” a figure whose name is ubiquitous in a way that allows him to be a synonym for fame itself, without a specific film or album predominantly associated with that fame. That Scorsese (according to his Criterion commentary) considered casting Sting as Pilate speaks to the unique ability of popular musicians who act in films to bring a certain gravitas to a cinematic performance without making a living primarily or exclusively through that medium. And I can’t think of a stronger case for this phenomenon than Bowie himself.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson 2004)
Wes Anderson’s most expensive undertaking thus far also features one of the most memorable recent Bowie moments on film without the man himself making an appearance in person or in song. Brazilian singer/songwriter Seu Jorge plays Pele, a member of Zissou’s crew who spends the film performing Portuguese covers of some of Bowie’s most recognizable songs (though Jorge didn’t simply translate Bowie’s lyrics into Portuguese; he wrote entirely new lyrics to the tune of the original English).
When The Life Aquatic was released in 2004, a new wave of popular indie music was being voraciously consumed by twenty-somethings. The Arcade Fire released their first album, Funeral, in September 2004, and the band would later tour with Bowie, who had been cited as one of their major inspirations. The Life Aquatic was released at a time when Bowie’s subcultural capital was on the rise as a result of a new generation of bands who name-dropped him as one of their major influences.
It didn’t matter that Reality, David Bowie’s 2003 album, would be the last collection of original music he would release for ten years. Other musicians – and films – could carry Bowie’s fame along for him.