David Bowie’s Best Films: Filtering His Silver Screen Legacy

Ahead of the release of Moonage Daydream...

With the release of Brett Morgen’s hyper-vivid and exploratory film Moonage Daydream on the starmaker himself David Bowie, Clash have curated five of Bowie’s most compelling silver-screen turns.

It wasn’t just limited to the big screen, in fact, David Bowie lent his immense talents to performances across over 30 films, television shows and theatre productions.

From the progressive and stylish The Man Who Fell To Earth to the cult classic Labyrinth, the David Bowie filmography is as you might expect, a varied and eclectic one.

Bowie had an instinctively captivating and compelling screen presence, an inevitable chameleonic scene-stealer, Bowie garnered a rich reputation for his acting chops almost as much as he did for his pioneering and relentless approach to innovation and reinvention in music. 

Naturally, there’s a synergy between the two art forms. David Bowie was a voracious and erudite cinephile and often used cinema for inspiration for his own art. 

Whether this was referencing Stanley Kubrick’s hypnotic masterpiece on ‘Space Oddity’ or the influence of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and the dystopian ‘1984’ on ‘Diamond Dogs’ and his final album, the extraordinary ‘Blackstar’ in 2016.

Bowie was a huge advocate of blurring the lines between the two arts. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1971, David said: “My performances have got to be theatrical experiences for me, as well as for the audience. I don’t want to climb out of my fantasies in order to go up on stage: I want to take them on stage with me.”

Examining his boundless creativity, magnetism and immeasurable talent, Emma Harrison revisits his five greatest performances on the big screen.

The Man Who Fell to Earth

Sometimes things are written in the stars, and the description of the humanoid alien Thomas Jerome Newton in Walter Tevis’ 1963 science fiction novel The Man Who Fell To Earth could almost have been written about the ‘White Duke’ himself. “His features delicate, his fingers long, thin… there was an elfin quality to his face, a fine boyish look to the wide, intelligent eyes.”

Bowie at the time was in the midst of a heavy cocaine habit which ultimately fed into his stunning portrayal of an alienated being. He said: “I was going a lot on instinct, and my instinct was pretty dissipated. I actually was feeling as alienated as that character was. It was a pretty natural performance… a good exhibition of somebody literally falling apart in front of you.”

This is a film to keep you on your toes as it continuously challenges our perception of not just time and space, but of culture, frenzied consumerism and societal pressures to ‘fit in’.

Decadent and portentous, this film pushes boundaries and was experimental in its approach whilst remaining stylistically decadent.

Bowie gives a commited, nuanced and dynamic performance as the alien who comes to Earth after crash landing in the desert to collect water for his drought-stricken planet in this sci-fi classic which is trippy and triumphant in equal measure. 

Like Bowie’s music, it’s genre-bending, arty and intriguing. The Man Who Fell To Earth is a powerful and gripping love story, a cosmic thriller and a spectacular fantasy. 

David Bowie’s Best Films: Filtering His Silver Screen Legacy

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

A far cry from the fantasy, eccentric and art led films that Bowie is renowned for, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a critically-acclaimed war film depicting the experiences of a troop of British soldiers captured by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.

Bowie in what is widely regarded as one of his greatest performances played a British officer named Major Jack Celliers, a resolute and rebellious POW in Nagisa Oshima’s 1983 WWII drama. 

His character becomes an object of desire for one of his captors after striking up a strange relationship with the camp’s commandant. The film explores cultural discord, power imbalance as well as the importance of finding common ground and bridging gaps across cultural divides.

David’s screen presence is full of sincerity, conviction and is both arresting and capricious, this with a stellar supporting cast which includes a brilliant turn by Tom Conti and a magnificent score by Ryuichi Sakamoto who plays Yanoi makes Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence a riveting watch, but if you are seeking out a more festive-fuelled saccharine film about the holiday period, eschew this and opt for ‘Home Alone’ instead.

David Bowie’s Best Films: Filtering His Silver Screen Legacy

Basquiat

In this 1996 biopic, Bowie plays the role of eccentric artist Andy Warhol in this visionary depiction of the postmodernist painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. Initially a struggling artist living in a cardboard box in Tompkins Square Park, Basquiat played by the fantastic Jeffrey Wright works his way up the rungs of the New York art world in the eighties.

In real life, David was a huge fan of Warhol and had even named a track on ‘Hunky Dory’ in tribute to the artist. Bowie wore Warhol’s actual wig, glasses and jacket from the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh for the film which helped with channelling the enigmatic artist.  Many believe that Bowie’s version of the man he admired so much was hailed by other Warhol insiders as one of the most accurate screen portrayals of the man himself.

Bowie channelled his adulation into his role giving a wry, quirky, slightly aloof and touching performance that is exuberant and playful as well as salty and spellbinding. The chemistry between Wright’s Basquiat and Bowie’s Warhol is sublime and really helps bring the story of the two artists to life and is a great place to start with when doing a deep dive into Bowie’s essential filmography.

David Bowie’s Best Films: Filtering His Silver Screen Legacy

Labyrinth

Bowie’s beguiling and brilliant performance as the Goblin King in the 1986 fantasy film Labyrinth helped cement the film as a cult classic and it’s certainly one of David’s most standout performances.

As Jareth, the Goblin King who demands that a young woman named Sarah (played by Jennifer Connelly) on a surreal pursuit as she navigates her way through a maze owned by Jareth to save her little brother. 

Labyrinth which was a collaboration between Muppets creator Jim Henson, Star Wars’ George Lucas, and Monty Python’s very own Terry Jones was not so widely appreciated at the time of its release in the eighties, but has subsequently gained a cult following and is widely regarded as one of Bowie’s best acting performances.

Bowie plays the suave Jareth, the King of the Goblins just right. He’s outrageously flamboyant, indulgent and unequivocally egocentric, but Bowie’s enigmatic charm transcended the abhorrent character of Jareth. The casting of Bowie was a genius move by the filmmakers and his revered performance as the dastardly Goblin King is integral to the appeal of ‘Labyrinth’.

Bowie recorded five songs for the film’s soundtrack which included ‘Underground’, ‘Magic Dance’, ‘Chilly Down’, ‘Within You’ and the beautiful  ‘As the World Falls Down’ all play a huge part in David Bowie’s musical legacy.

David Bowie’s Best Films: Filtering His Silver Screen Legacy

The Last Temptation of Christ

Martin Scorsese’s 1988 cinematic interpretation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ controversial 1955 novel was always going to be a risky proposition for him. However, where there is risk, there’s reward and Scorsese won an Academy Award Nomination for Best Director and this film is regarded as one of his greats.

The Last Temptation of Christ humanises Willem Dafoe’s Jesus Christ showing his vulnerability and his internal battle with temptation, humanity and divinity. In this depiction, the character of Jesus Christ is flawed and whilst this film courted controversy at the time, it is bold, powerful and thought-provoking.

Bowie is fantastic as Pontius Pilate, the official who was handed the responsibility to oversee the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He only appears for just shy of four minutes, but packs the proverbial punch with an arresting and layered performance, delivering each line with the utmost panache and subtlety that truly elevates the film in only the way that Bowie can.

This coupled with the bold cinematography, impeccable direction and the soaring, otherworldly score by Peter Gabriel which was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score.

David Bowie’s Best Films: Filtering His Silver Screen Legacy

Moonage Daydream will be released on September 23rd.

Words: Emma Harrison

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