Until the very end, David Bowie was an artist full of surprises. On his 69th birthday, he released a new album, Blackstar, which turned out to be his swansong. The final song in this album is “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, which is immensely appropriate for an artist whose seemingly endless resourcefulness and chameleon qualities have earned him a place of its own in the pantheon of contemporary pop artists.
His many personae made him more than a great musician. Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke were all a part of him. His peerless influence as a performer extended beyond music and art into our beloved world of cinema. Although sporadic, his career in film was successful, and he worked with some of the best filmmakers of our time. Here are six films to remember David Bowie.
The Man Who Fell To Earth
David Bowie took his first film role in 1976 in this surreal sci-fi drama. It was praised as a bold, engaging and immersive. One can safely assume that this is, in no small part thanks to Bowie’s magnetic charisma. He played Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien coming to earth to take water back to his planet which is experiencing a severe drought. His performance, which was widely praised, was the basis, at least visually, of his subsequent alter ego Thin White Duke. (One of the many times in Bowie’s life when art was a performance that transcended mediums of expression.)
Just like the previous entry in this list, this 1983 film has gained strong cult following. Directed by the late Tony Scott, it may well be remembered for its eroticism and its lesbian love scene between screen icons Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon. Bowie later seemed dubious of the end product, saying that “there’s nothing that looks like it” (which can be a double-edged statement). However, the cult following of this movie spawned into an anthology series in the late 90’s, which Bowie hosted in the second season.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
Also released in 1983, David Bowie starred in this film (also known as Furyo), narrating the lives of four prisoners of war in a Japanese prisoner camp during World War II. Bowie was hired after the director saw him during his Broadway stint in The Elephant Man, which showed “an inner spirit that is indestructible”. Such a statement could as well summarise Bowie’s lifetime and dedication as an artist who was always experimenting, who knew highs and lows, morphed into different personae in order to be reborn.
David Bowie, Goblin King. Doesn’t that sound great? Bowie always had a thing for the offbeat, and so did Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. This film was greeted with mixed reviews but subsequently received a cult following (as did most of Bowie’s work, really). It tells the story of a teenager who goes on a quest to save her toddler brother who has been kidnapped by the Goblin King. (Talk about offbeat.) It featured great puppeteering effects (which were mostly shot in camera) and several songs from Bowie, and is worth revisiting for its definitive 80’s vibe.
The Last Temptation of Christ
This was Martin Scorsese’s dream project since childhood. Catholicism and cinema have always been the two greatest influence on him, and he always wanted to bring Jesus’s life to the screen. The project had been greenlit twice before being agreed to a third time and eventually shot. It spurred great controversy and sharp reactions at the time its release, notably the attack on a movie theatre in Paris. In an inspired decision, Bowie was cast as Pontius Pilate and demonstrated, as though it was still necessary by then, his immense talents on the screen.
Just after successfully rebooting the Batman franchise at Warner Bros, Raindance alumni Christopher Nolan brought to the screen the riveting rivalry of two magicians in the 19th century. Bowie plays Nikola Tesla, the real-life inventor, who creates a teleportation device for Hugh Jackman’s character. It’s a key supporting part in the narrative, and Nolan thought that he needed a man who exuded a sense of showmanship. Who better to ask than David Bowie, whose entire life was about creation and performance?
These films are just a small illustration of what a great and complete artist David Bowie was, and they complement his music work well. All together, they create a picture that can only hint at what he was striving for, and how much he had to give us all.