Discovering David Bowie Through Movies

David Bowie in Labyrinth

There is no wrong way or wrong time to enter the career of David Bowie. Of the many personae and identities he produced over his nearly fifty-year career, there are certainly some canonized iterations – especially in the 1970s, the era of Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke. However, much of his career is predicated on changing tastes largely without judgment and exploring multiple platforms upon which to realize art. And thus, to know David Bowie through his films or through one era of his music is not to only partly understand Bowie, but to take part in the very project of making “David Bowie.” What makes being a fan of David Bowie so pleasurable is that “discovering” David Bowie feels so personal: some fragment of his diverse career comes into your orbit and speaks to you at the right time, and you feel some ownership over that – a loving invitation into his display of spectacle, poise, and idiosyncrasy.

As Simon Frith and Howard Horne wrote in 1987, “Bowie became a blank canvas on which consumers write their dreams.” At some point, David Bowie realized – with greater insight into the workings of media than perhaps any star who preceded him – that we experience stars as fragments of their complete cultural output. He embraced this phenomenon for all its worth, living a thousand lives under the self-conscious guise of numerous names and characters. Of course, many of us have wondered who David Bowie “really” was, and what aspects of his core self have seeped through his many glorious masks. But, ultimately, it didn’t really matter. His performances were extensive and elaborate demonstrations of a core truth: we each have different personae that we adopt, fashion, and perform. Bowie simply engaged in such performances against, rather than within, social norms. The joy in watching David Bowie act, sing, dance, and be was always the performance itself and the compounding nature of it, growing more intriguing as his characters grew in number and even contradicted one another into a great, heterogeneous life’s work – which has clearly been the project of Bowie’s late-stage career renaissance through albums, compilations, an off-Broadway show, and a blockbuster museum exhibit, much of which now clearly resonates as a final farewell. Richard Dyer once described all stars as “extensive, multimedia, intertextual.” David Bowie may as well have adopted this as his mantra.

Fame was the object, and sex was the content. Not just the sex appeal that had defined popular music well before he sang “Space Oddity,” but sci-fi sex, sex and death, sex and alienation, sex in a non-binarized world, sex – in David Byrne’s words – “as an idea, and sex as a reality, and sex as a liberating force.”

Bowie knew how to put on a show perhaps better than anyone, and in the end it was himself that was his life’s work, bowing out with one last communique from Mars. His death did not hit his admirers so hard simply because we didn’t know he had cancer (for as much as Bowie let his fans co-own his persona, he also prized serious control over his performance), but, as Hilton Als observed, “This was not supposed to happen.” Most ’50s and ’60s rock stars endeavored to communicate to you their humanity, their authenticity, a core self empowered yet uncorrupted by the abstractions of fame. Bowie always communicated his immortality, and fame as its vehicle. Besides Little Richard – Bowie’s introduction to rock music – has any rock star before Bowie so convincingly performed their self as something other, something greater, than human?

Bowie may, in many respects, seem hardly so radical today – and admittedly, the gravitational pull of his aura has obscured some troubling rock star clichés and the fact that his collaborators and sources of inspiration rarely shared his prosperity. But Bowie also eschewed the macho, hyper-masculine posturing of prior rock ’n’ roll rebels and demonstrated to us that being weird, glamorous, performative, and queer was not only okay, but happened to be practiced by the coolest fucking person in the world. My social media feeds were loaded with testimonies yesterday of people who, more than mere fans of Bowie’s prolific cultural output, felt that he was key to their survival of adolescence, a red lightning bolt stretched across mass culture that showed you someone, somewhere thought you were worthy of being celebrated for your difference. Bowie showed us a radical kind of being through consuming stars before the sounds of rock and roll became a dominant language of consumerism itself. Many of the changes and challenges that Bowie made to culture seem hardly so radical today because we live in a culture that has roundly felt his influence.

I did not discover Bowie through his music. I discovered him through films like The Man Who Fell to Earth, his narrative feature debut. While containing not a single Bowie song, the ideas that Bowie established and explored in his music – alienation, otherness, the mutability of the body – permeate through the film. Bowie’s music was never isolated to his music. His career was in constant search of the medium through which to articulate his ideas, from miming to theatre to, yes, movies. Miming, in which he was formally trained, taught David Bowie how to move, posture, and communicate through gesture. That’s why he’s such a delight to see onscreen in his sparse but rich filmography. He was not a movie star in strict terms, but he moved and conducted himself like one after having used the very idea of stardom as the DNA of his rock ’n’ roll image. He was not an actor with extraordinary range, but was by all means a screen presence, a sight to behold when used correctly. Nagisa Oshima understood this when casting Bowie as an enigmatic POW in the superb Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. When explaining his casting of Bowie, Oshima said, “I needed someone without the peculiarities actors often acquire.”

Labyrinth was my discovery of David Bowie. I was in seventh grade, and the film was being screened as part of my speech class (I have no idea why). I had heard Bowie’s name before, but upon seeing this film for the first time I could hardly wrap my mind around the fact that that this was the person I’d heard about. He turned my sepia-toned suburbia into a lush, sexy, Technicolor Oz. Was this still a Jim Henson film I was viewing? Was everybody else as entranced as I was by the film’s “bad guy”? Two decades worth of Labyrinth cult fandom later, it turns out I’m not alone. And that was one of the most powerful things David Bowie did – he proved you weren’t alone, especially when it came to being intrigued by David Bowie.