Rock legend David Bowie is no stranger to movies. In fact, he’s acted in quite a few: they range from campy cult favorites like “The Labyrinth” to Tony Scott’s underrated vampire flick “The Hunger.” He’s also made appearances in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” (as Pontius Pilate), Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” (as inventor Nikola Tesla), in addition to popping up randomly in everything from “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” to a cheeky cameo in “Zoolander,” where he plays himself.
With his gaunt, skeletal physique and otherworldly aura, it’s not a surprise that filmmakers remain attracted to him as a visual subject (one day, someone will cast Tilda Swinton in a biopic of the singer… mark my words). And yet it is Bowie’s unknowable, alluring alien nature that remains his chief quality as an entertainer and a pop culture icon. This might be why director Nicolas Roeg thought to cast Bowie as an actual, real-deal alien in his trippy 1976 picture “The Man Who Fell To Earth,” which is the subject of this nifty new video essay from Film Comment. More specifically, the video examines the film’s use of music and how Roeg’s deft and unconventional employment of orchestral music, pop tunes and diegetic selections contribute to the kooky, beautifully disorienting experience of watching the film for the first time.
Roeg was apparently compelled to cast Bowie as his leading extraterrestrial after watching him in Alan Yentob’s way-out-there doc “Cracked Actor,” where the singer truly does resemble an alien life force more than any flesh-and-blood human being. To be sure, Bowie is terrific as Thomas Jerome Newton, the alien of the title, but ironically, he was never selected to be in charge of the film’s soundtrack. That honor went to another rocker: John Phillips, former bandleader of ’60s folks troubadours the Mamas & the Papas, who apparently hand-picked from a selection of pop, classical, prog and original compositions for Roeg’s approval.
In any case, the video is fascinating stuff – it examines Roeg’s seemingly random musical choices, and how his esoteric picks, coupled with Bowie’s wildly discordant and eerily beautiful performance, coalesce to create a truly uncompromising and radical work of art. The soundtrack is constantly ebbing and flowing – changing on a whim, just like the film itself. It’s a beautiful look at a truly singular film experience, and well-worth checking out. Watch the video essay below, and be sure to check out “The Man Who Fell to Earth” if you haven’t already.