Music in the movies: David Bowie

News Glen Chapman
3 Aug 2010 - 04:52

In his latest Music in the Movies column, Glen looks back at the movie career of musician and actor, David Bowie...

One of the finest musical artists to come out of Britain, David Bowie has had a long, successful and critically acclaimed career, managing to tackle a number of different genres whilst retaining an unmistakable sound at the heart of all he does.

In addition to his music career, Bowie has also tried his hand at many other areas of the arts. Below I will take a look at his adventures in cinema...


This is, without doubt, Bowie's most iconic role as an actor. The Henson/Lucas co-production provided a perfect showcase for his talents, and he excels in the part of the Goblin King Jareth, stealing the show with his performance that jumps between comedic and sinister, and a styling that's a throwback to his glam rock days.

His costume was identified as nightmare-inducing in an article on this very site, as it exposed a little more of the trouser department than is acceptable in a movie primarily aimed at children.

His contribution to the film's soundtrack is strong, even though the Magic Dance sequence in the film seems a little out of place, and many of the entries are firmly of their time and don't stand up as well more than 20 years after the film's release.

Bowie reported that the baby noises heard in Magic Dance were by him, as the baby that was in the studio didn't perform as required. Amateur!

Despite my reservations about Magic Dance, that song and Underground are two of the more upbeat Bowie numbers, and the pieces that many fans of the film favour.

For me, the stand-out track is the creepy Within You, which is sung by Bowie as he's following the movements of Jennifer Connelly's Sarah through the Goblin Kingdom. Almost as impressive is As The World Falls Down. Both numbers showcase a darker side to the Goblin King while still making him a sympathetic character. There's a longing in his voice that treads a line between creepy and tragic.

Acting Career

Given his reputation for changing his image to suit his creative output, it's little surprise that he eventually made the transition to acting, and his screen career is one of the most respectable of any of the many musicians who have made the transition.

Bowie's cinematic debut was in 1969 with a small part in the film The Virgin Soldiers, and in the same year he would appear in a little-seen experimental film entitled The Image. These roles were before Bowie broke through into the mainstream, and it wasn't until he released The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, his concept album that captured the zeitgeist as glam rock reached the height of its popularity, that he would enjoy the level of fame and success he enjoys to this day.

The album made Bowie a worldwide superstar and the accompanying documentary, capturing the final date of Bowie's final tour date in 1973, shot by D.A. Pennebaker, is essential viewing for all Bowie fans.

A few years after Pennebaker's documentary, Nicholas Roeg cast Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth. Bowie's first leading role really played to his talents and was a perfect fit for his persona. He plays an alien that falls to Earth and becomes a wealthy businessman and pop star who is disillusioned with his life and looking to find a way home. Bowie is nothing short of excellent. There's a nice import edition available that pairs this with the incredible Moon, directed by Bowie's son. Duncan Jones.

For much of the late 70s early 80s, Bowie's cinematic endeavours were limited due to his touring schedule. He appeared in the final film of Marlene Dietrich with Just A Gigolo. Other roles included Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and The Hunger.

Following the success of Labyrinth, Bowie had a small role in the British musical Absolute Beginners, and two years later played Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation Of Christ.

Since the 90s, Bowie's touring schedule has reduced significantly and he has appeared in a number of interesting projects through that period. The Linguini Incident, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and a role playing Andy Warhol in Basquiat marked that decade's output, and in the 2000s he had an amusing cameo in Zoolander and the role of Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, among numerous other projects.

Additionally, Bowie was rumoured to have turned down the opportunity to play the villain in A View To A Kill and was reportedly considered for the role of the Joker in Tim Burton's Batman.

As is evident from the above, Bowie's cinematic accomplishments are varied, and nothing less than interesting. Seemingly never playing the same role twice and rarely falling into the usual rock star roles, his output is very impressive.

Composing and Soundtrack inclusions

In addition to his work on Labyrinth, Bowie has provided music for a number of other movies. His work on Cat People has gained a new appreciation recently, with Quentin Tarantino using it to stunning effect in a key scene from his latest opus, Inglourious Basterds.

Christiane F isn't a film that features a score by Bowie, but features a considerable amount of concert his footage throughout, certainly enough to say his work is integral to the film.

Notable scores include his work for Hero (1983), The Falcon And The Snowman starring Sean Penn, and Boy Meets Girl, which also boasts musical contributions from Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Pinault.

For British-based projects, Bowie was a songwriter for the Julien Temple-directed musical Absolute Beginners, and composed the score for the BBC production The Buddha Of Suburbia.

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