As it seems like the entire human race is struggling to memorialize David Bowie in the still-fresh wake of his passing, there’s some comfort in knowing, at least, that if we’re going to take on the insurmountable task of trying to make one man immortal, we’re at least going to be doing it together.
Which means that, regardless of whether we have anything original to say, we each (probably) feel the urge to say something: to write something, to tweet something, to sing something, to try to make something that will last—almost as if it’s our quiet, sad human duty. And so the time’s come to reflect on whatever it was about what David Bowie made that has impelled us to respond in kind. For Paste’s Movies writers, that means writing about his movies.
David Bowie’s film career was never as defining to the mythos of David Bowie as was his music—more an addendum or a letter of recommendation—but he still worked with both genre and Hollywood stalwarts, from John Landis to Christopher Nolan, from Nagisa Oshima to David Lynch to Martin Scorsese to Nicholas Roeg. His acting chops, while immersive and so ineffably casual, mostly just informed his musical persona(e), simultaneously confirming that he was an incomparable performer, able to inhabit any skin he wanted to step into.
Even if that means his own skin, as in Zoolander, in which Bowie serves as a “walk-off” judge in a pivotal scene, and Christiane F., a brutal German drama about a teenage girl’s descent into heroin addiction. It was Bowie’s attachment to the latter project as both a soundtrack artist and actor (the character attends a Bowie concert where he performs “Station to Station”) that arguably allowed the film to find distribution and, later, achieve cult status. With Bowie’s supporting turn as a Wall Street investor in Austin Chick’s indie drama, August, his cultural cache fills in all blanks: We sense his imposing power, his immovable nature, his epic, whispered stature.
In fact, it’s Bowie’s roles in film which reassure us that all this myth-making we’re doing is worth it. So here’s our attempt at helping him live forever. Be it with video games or cartoons or a Ben Stiller comedy, we owe as much to an artist who found as many ways as he could to connect with us, every one of us, on our own terms.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1975)
The Man Who Fell to Earth has many origins—in the Walter Tevis book from which it’s adapted; in David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona; in the general atmospheric insanity of its director, Nicolas Roeg. As the titular fallen man—an alien from a drought-plagued planet sent to retrieve water from earth—Bowie embodies a character who’s simultaneously regal and otherworldly, better than human but unnerving for it. His presence is captivating, simultaneously anchoring the film through its sillier, more off-the-wall bouts of incoherency (a sex scene involving a blank-filled gun is particularly head scratching) while giving such moments emotional heft.
Years later, Bowie admitted that he shot most of the film in the midst of a cocaine binge. Whether that’s actually true or just a bit of Bowie myth-making, there’s no question he’s able to, near the beginning of an iconic career, one in which everyone will know his name, perfectly capture the character’s isolation and, then, gradual mental deterioration. And yet, Bowie’s first feature is far from a vanity project, nothing like an image-bolstering solo show; Bowie used his burgeoning clout to make a crazy, tragic art film. It spoke volumes of what was to come. —Mark Rozeman
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence may be the first film to confront and then attempt to understand the flawlessness of David Bowie’s charm. This is before Labyrinth, when one would only have to point to the Goblin King and the Goblin King’s bulge and proclaim, “Behold!”, and everyone understood to what degree of power you were referring. Which isn’t to say that “David Bowie’s charm” is anything to be taken lightly. Because Nagisa Oshima’s film is a very literal study of what it feels like to be obsessed with David Bowie: Everyone in this movie is secretly in love with David Bowie.
Pretty solidly a superstar by this point and already flush with acting experience, David Bowie is Major Celliers, a British soldier captured by the Japanese during the thick of World War II, sent to a POW camp on Java overseen by Captain Yanoi. Played by a legendary musician in his own right, Yanoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto, who provides the film’s searing neon score) is a strikingly beautiful man with a penchant for eye shadow and blush who struggles to oppress his obsession with this new prisoner, knowing full well the severe punishment that awaits any homoerotic activity under his army’s strict bushido code.
No one actually says anything out loud about what it is that’s just so seductive about Celliers, of course, though the film is a-swim with googly eyes and platitudes and thoughtful notes of concern for Celliers and his general disregard for the authority of his Japanese captors. Instead, we as viewers sincerely believe that it makes sense that Japanese military bureaucracy would nominally tolerate Celliers’ antics during wartime, that anyone who even cursorily glimpses the man will be taken aback by his sharp features and effortless carry, swept up as we are in the limitless potential of David Bowie’s presence. Oshima’s film operates pretty handily as a case for David Bowie sainthood.
With swagger empirical, and weirdness minimal, Bowie skirts the line between wit and tragedy, mean-mugging plenty while the camera laps up his every microgesture. When Yanoi later in the film loses his cool over Celliers’ incessant impudence, the captain becomes a thinly veiled manifestation of desperation. He knows he’s losing control, and that his desire will destroy him, but he can’t help himself—so he rages against his heart’s need. Even Sgt. Hara (Beat Takeshi, before he became a household twitch), an unhinged drunk who forced an underling to commit seppuku upon the revelation that he had “buggered” a Swedish POW, can’t help but sort of love in his own deranged way Bowie’s Celliers, enough at least to turn away from his destructive ways and find some peace in the film’s conclusion. Bowie’s character himself, the irrepressible Major “Strafer” Celliers, can’t survive the life-rending, magnetic core that is David Bowie. If there was ever a first film to watch to begin to comprehend why it is that everyone on this planet, in this moment, feels the need to express devoted love for the indelible memory of David Bowie, it’s this one, wherein scores of men love him so tenderly, they come out in full force to sing for him while he suffers a torture which inevitably martyrs him. Because again: Oshima’s canonization complex.
And still, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a quiet film, unhurried and rarely manic, allowing plenty of time and space for infatuation to set in. Long shots wander over barracks full of dirty, downtrodden and sometimes destroyed prisoners, but always Oshima finds his way back to David Bowie, affording his saint even a fantasy in which he’s able to find some closure over a younger brother he wronged. And admittedly, Oshima is always right to do so: The final shot of Bowie’s head is so crushingly beautiful, one wonders why we’d ever spend any time anywhere else, away from a spot two or four intimate feet away from such a magnificent face. —Dom Sinacola
The Hunger (1983)
An awareness of mortality is all over David Bowie’s now-final record, Blackstar, but when it comes to his film performances, rarely did he confront death as directly as in Tony Scott’s baroque 1983 horror film The Hunger. As John Blaylock, the current undead love interest of Egyptian vampire lady Miriam (Catherine Deneuve), Bowie begins the film as eternally stylish as ever, especially with the sunglasses he sports in The Hunger’s virtuosic opening sequence, as he and Miriam prey on a couple in a nightclub. But John soon finds himself showing signs of aging at an extraordinarily accelerated rate, leading to one of the film’s more unsettling sequences, in which, sitting in a hospital waiting room, he seems to become older and older by the minute. Bowie’s reactions are fascinating in the way they convey the sense of a character increasing failing at maintaining an unflappable cool, especially as he realizes how Miriam lied to him about the eternal youth she promised him 200 years ago and how near death looms. In the end, though, John doesn’t rage against the dying of the light so much as quietly accept his disappointing fate. “In the midst of life, we are in death”—so the famous saying from the Book of Common Prayer goes. Even in the midst of a monumental career, and in the context of a slick genre yarn, David Bowie, ever the visionary, was willing to contemplate such grim truth. —Kenji Fujishima
Into the Night (1985)
In 1985, to endure David Bowie’s quick-burn role in Into the Night is to come to terms with the staggering ordinariness of David Bowie’s mortality. Playing the shifty Colin Morris, a British hitman, Bowie appears exactly twice, one with a zombified Jeff Goldblum, wielding a gun unsafely, and another grimacing to keep a knife from plunging into his chest—both times with a crisply dumb mustache and the kind of high-waisted, pleated slacks that seem born to shroud his lanky skeleton. Though Bowie’s as competent and uncomplicated as ever, he mostly amounts to a mild distraction from the main couple’s caper. While John Landis’s comedy-thriller isn’t really much of either, the director’s real crime is relegating the appearance—the resource—of David Bowie to a forgettable altercation. —DS
Like so many other kids growing up in the early days of MTV, several years after his assorted musical alter egos had been cemented into the pop stratosphere, I discovered David Bowie not as Major Tom or Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane or Halloween Jack or the Thin White Duke, but as Jareth the Goblin King. The devastatingly poised and stylish ruler of the 1986 Muppet fairy tale Labyrinth, Bowie’s misunderstood baddie was the Wizard of Oz for Gen X moviegoers, much as the film itself sent Jim Henson-worshipping youngsters down their own uniquely ’80s, glitter-flecked Yellow Brick Road. Jareth was a dangerous counterpart to the glossy, New Wave mod of Bowie’s then-in-heavy-rotation hits like “Let’s Dance,” “Modern Love” and “China Girl.” His Goblin King was a Tolkien-esque monolith of literary proportions, which owed as much to Maurice Sendak as it did Dorian Gray.
From start to finish, Labyrinth was, in a word, weird—a sublime oddity even in an era of fraggles and beta-version holograms and turtle crimefighters and barrel-tossing apes and fungus-dwelling blue elves. At its otherworldly core was the spindly, spikily coiffed overlord Jareth. We were held captive from his first moments, in which a (pre-Harry Potter) white owl turned Bowie silhouette, his shadow looming in a sparkle-casting wind outside the white-shuttered windows of suburbia. Bowie—with his over-mannered swagger, over-enunciated speech, over-everything, really (cough, front bulge, cough)—reduced the audience to such putty in his hands as that crystal orb floating along his character’s lithe fingers.
Shape-shifting was, of course, nothing new for Bowie, but he seemed to meet his cinematic match in the preternatural imaginations of director Jim Henson and screenwriter Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame)—two other artists who knew something about owning the tenuous line between fantasy and reality. In a 1986 interview with Movieline, Bowie said of the project, an unofficial follow-up to The Dark Crystal: “I’d always wanted to be involved in the music-writing aspect of a movie that would appeal to children of all ages, as well as everyone else, and I must say that Jim gave me a completely free hand with it. The script itself was terribly amusing without being vicious or spiteful or bloody, and it had a lot more heart in it than many other special effects movies. So I was pretty hooked from the beginning.”
The Goblin King was originally going to be a puppet, but Henson wisely reconsidered the importance of another live-action star to ground the story. That Bowie’s singularly ethereal charisma seemed only slightly more human than the Muppet creatures surrounding him, alongside ingénue costar Jennifer Connelly, made Labyrinth that much more a transportive experience. In contrast with the A-list cameos on the weekly Muppet Show broadcast or Sesame Street of the day, Bowie’s megawatt presence somehow, curiously, fit both naturally and extraordinarily into this fantastical realm, be it on Jareth’s princely perch high in his castle or cutting a rug with his Muppet minions during the “Magic Dance,” with its synth-driven, circular call-and-answer: “You remind me of the babe / (What babe?) / Babe with the power / (What power?) / Power of voodoo / (Who do?) / You do / (Do What?) / Remind me of the babe.”
Whereas other celebs were merely dropping by these parallel puppet universes, Bowie seemed to exist without effort, to belong—and in turn, he comforted the youngest of us who felt like freaks and weirdos. With its all-in approach to the outliers, Labyrinth was nothing if not a movie of and about misfits, from an alarmingly large-schnozzed dwarf to a literal Junk Lady to Connelly’s cosplay-loving heroine, Sarah, clad in an era-appropriate puffy-sleeved poet’s blouse, brocade vest and stonewashed jeans. As the end credits roll, Sarah dances in her bedroom with her newfound friends to Bowie’s song “Underground,” and young viewers believed that we, too, could fit in, somewhere…if only in our imaginations.
Bowie contributed a total of five songs to the film—among them, the glassy, seductive ballad “As the World Falls Down,” the soundtrack for a masquerade ball courtship of sorts. Here and elsewhere, his signature glam androgyny is but one of the film’s visual delights, from the penultimate Escher set piece to a wry Stonehenge riff about 48:35 in, a tribute to Bowie’s chiseled mug in which three rock sculptures align to form his face. As with any Henson creation, it was smart and self-aware, cheeky but sincere, and Bowie seemed to relish being in on the good-natured fun; take the guileless yet fourth-wall-breaking dance party in his lair, complete with kegs of Muppet-suited beer.
Along with the occasional mild profanity, some of the PG-rated film’s adult themes were, of course, lost on more innocent moviegoers: Bowie’s fluid sexuality and the bulge of those deliberately too-tight pants; both occult and Biblical subtexts; the borderline cringe-worthy relationship between Bowie’s then 39-year-old leading man and Connelly’s coming-of-age 15-year-old. And since its release 30 years ago this June, Labyrinth—a critical and box-office disappointment—has grown in cultural and public standing, with all of the re-evaluations to accompany it. The outpouring of fondness online for the cult classic since news of Bowie’s passing is the latest testament to its status for a generation who marveled at the onscreen universe before them, one helmed by a Space Oddity they would only appreciate more as they grew up, one whose unique constituents made them feel less alone. Time and space had no bearing, the orbit felt within our grasp. Plus—and this was just as critical—the leader of the misfits was so damned cool.
As have countless other fans, I’ve rewatched Labyrinth in the wake of Bowie’s death and am struck by the enduring magic of this cinematic dreamscape, and how its adventure, its unknowability, its limitlessness echoes the breadth of his art. When Sarah weighs whether or not she can make it to her destination, tucked far away in Jareth’s kingdom, the Goblin King himself advises, “It’s further than you think. Time is short.” And at the end of her journey, Bowie’s velvet voice—a gospel choir backing him up—reminds her, and us, “It’s only forever / Not long at all.” -Amanda Schurr
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
For three and a half minutes—transformed into an eternity by the incessant scream-whinnying of a horse off-screen—David Bowie plays Pontius Pilate as a tired bureaucrat mildly amused by Jesus (Willem Dafoe) until the maybe-Messiah’s message of love becomes an irritating waste of time. He leaves the film softly exasperated: “We have a space for you up on Golgotha. Three thousand skulls there right now, probably more…I do wish you people would go out and count them sometime. Maybe you’d learn a lesson—no, probably not.” Director Martin Scorsese knew that to keep Pontius Pilate from being villainized in the eyes of an audience conditioned to behold Jesus’s crucifiers as the bad guys, he needed an actor in the role who could be worshipped as easily as he could be despised. Because The Last Temptation of Christ is Scorsese’s take on the human side of the Jesus story—how the divinity of the Christian figure is bolstered by that humanness—the director required someone who could pass the death sentence on Jesus with the gravity of a figure of authority sadly but confidently doing his job—and only that. Bowie bears that cinematic cross, holding aloft the ambiguous grey of Scorsese’s whole film until its (literally) shattering final moment. —DS
From a pure casting standpoint, Julian Schnabel’s debut feature Basquiat is an embarrassment of riches. Besides boasting a breakout performance from Jeffrey Wright, the film features appearances from Gary Oldman, Benicio Del Toro, Parker Posey, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, Courtney Love and an early career Sam Rockwell. Perhaps the most notable casting coup on Schnabel’s part, however, is David Bowie stepping into the role of Andy Warhol, a figure the singer famously idolized—and even serenaded (“Andy Warhol” from Hunky Dory). Though Bowie cannot entirely toss aside his British speech affectations, he has the artist’s lilting vocal patterns and eccentric, if low-key demeanor down pat. The Warhol of Basquiat is a man in the twilight of his career, content with his iconic status in life yet concerned that he no longer quite has the eye for quality that made him an icon. It’s rare that one icon can play another, and Bowie is clearly having a grand time here exploring the limits of what that even means. —MR
Velvet Goldmine (1998)
is an unconventional pop star in the same way Todd Haynes is an unconventional filmmaker, and so it’s fitting that Haynes’ two stabs at a “bio film” are anything but traditional. Like his 2007 Bob Dylan treatise I’m Not There, which tracks the artist’s life via the various artistic identities he tried on throughout his career, Haynes’ glam rock/Bowie meditation, Velvet Goldmine, mines its material more from the mythology and legend of its inspiration rather than hard-and-fast biographical facts. Lifting the structure of Citizen Kane, Haynes weaves the story of a British journalist who seeks to uncover the life story (and subsequent disappearance) of famed glam rocker Brian Slade through non-linear vignettes wherein the journalist’s subjects recall their experiences with the artist.
One of the film’s most prominent storylines involves Slade’s complicated relationship with Curt Wild, a feral beast of a frontman who bears more than a passing resemblance to Iggy Pop (with some Lou Reed elements sprinkled in). Using the skeleton of Bowie’s career, Haynes explores themes of identity, gender fluidity and the complex affair between American and British music. Though Bowie was reportedly (and understandably) not keen on the idea of his life being dissected in such a way, there’s much more to the film than simply reveling in thinly veiled and salacious “drug-sex-rock-n-roll” tales. As Bowie did playing Warhol in Basquiat, so does Velvet Goldmine use a boundary-breaking artist to explore what kind of responsibility such iconography and celebrity demands. —MR
The Prestige (2006)
You can practically see a board room full of film executives (or maybe just Chris Nolan, spacing out in the shower) pondering who should play enigmatic inventor Nikola Tesla in a small but crucial role in The Prestige. “OK,” one of them presumably says. “What do we know about Tesla? He’s a scientific genius, sort of effete-looking guy who’s constantly breaking boundaries, thinking outside the box and far ahead of his time. Who in Hollywood does that sound like?”
And then they realized the answer was “No one in Hollywood,” so they went out and got David Bowie instead. And what a natural choice that was, because Bowie as Tesla is really the deus ex machina that provides the film with its big second-half twist. He’s presented as a truly magical being—ironic given that this is supposed to be a film about dueling magicians. Where Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) are ultimately just showmen, Telsa is the real deal. Even his first meeting with Angier is incredibly intimidating, as he strides confidently through what appears to be a deadly field of electrical discharge. He seriously enters the film like he’s Maleficent, striding in to fuck up Princess Aurora’s christening, and the fact that he’s got the perfect Igor henchman in Andy Serkis only enhances the spectacle.
Then there’s his dialog, which one can’t help but interpret as Bowie describing the ups and downs of his own career. Just listen to this: “The first time I tried to change the world I was hailed as a visionary. The second time, I was asked politely to retire.” Certainly, there were more similarities between the rogue scientist and singer than meet the eye. —Jim Vorel