On the soundtrack he is there even when he isn’t, his songs used to signal ch-ch-ch-change. On film, he is tantalizingly distant in his presence, the vanishing point that brings the viewer deeper into the scene. Directors as diverse as Leo Carax, Amy Heckerling, Nancy Meyers and Christopher Nolan used Bowie music for atmosphere and commentary. Filmmakers varied as Jim Henson, Nicolas Roeg, Martin Scorsese, Julian Schnabel and Ben Stiller cast him in movies.
Bowie is the unseen guardian angel singing “Golden Years” when Heath Ledger jousts in the tournaments of “A Knight’s Tale.” He is Greta Gerwig’s invisible partner crooning “Modern Love” as she dances, storklike, in “Frances, Ha.” His anthem “Heroes” guides Emma Watson through the teenage tunnel of hell up to the heaven of autonomy in “Perks of Being a Wallflower.”
The coda to this remix, which unspooled in my head when I heard Bowie had passed, could be “Velvet Goldmine.” This is the one in which director Todd Haynes apotheosizes Bowie in the character of Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Myers), the glitter-rock star whose music and fluid sexuality transform his fans, particularly one played by Christian Bale. (Haynes explains Bowie’s influence on his filmmaking to Vanity Fair here.)
Were I to edit a tribute to Bowie on film it would certainly highlight how he is a creature off the human time/space/sex continuum. Maybe begin with clips from his first major movie, Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” a mordant film that in many ways anticipated “E.T.” and might be read as Bowie’s origin story. He plays Thomas Newton, an extraterrestrial hoping to send water back to his parched planet, and crash-lands in the U.S. Begin with Newton’s crash-landing and first encounters. He is not one of us. He is other. See how this creature that, it is implied, simultaneously travels through different time frames (time can’t change him, because he can’t trace time) watches a bank of some 16 TV screens. Perhaps a few seconds of the alien sex scene where Newton makes love with Candy Clark, every pore of his naked body ejaculating in pleasure, to Clark’s confusion and horror.
Cut to Tony Scott’s “The Hunger,” with Bowie as John Blaylock and Catherine Deneuve as his wife Miriam, making love in the shower. Bowie is out of time again as the Baroque-era cellist living swankly in 20th century Manhattan. He is a vampire, emotional and sex slave to Miriam who has promised him eternal youth and eternal love. When Miriam breaks these promises the look on John’s face cracks your heart. Fadeout.
Fade in to Bowie as mullet-haired Jareth the Goblin King in Henson’s “Labyrinth” coming on to 15-year-old Jennifer Connelly (in her hallucination). Once again out of time and representing dangerous sex, Bowie is powerful — but powerless before the girl he desires. For comic relief, a clip from Julien Temple’s 1958-era “Absolute Beginners,” with Bowie as adman Vendice Partners, devil in a blue sharkskin suit, performing peppy song & dance on monumental typewriter keys, “That’s Motivation!” Or maybe musical sequence “Selling Out,” in which Venice exalts money—and sex—to the teenage hero? Once again, Bowie epitomizes pleasure and danger, and maybe a little sorcery?
Definitely end with Nolan’s “The Prestige,” with Bowie as Nikola Tesla, entering through a lightning field of electric bolts. He places a bulb in the left hand of magician Hugh Jackman, shakes the right hand and the bulb lights up. The human body can conduct electricity, the inventor explains to Jackman. When first I saw that scene I thought, no, Bowie is electric.End the clip reel with one of Bowie’s last messages, tweeted Monday by his widow, Iman: “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.”