David Bowie Was No Chameleon: A Sound and Vision Lookback

David Bowie played a lot of roles on stage, screen and studio, but he always stood out. We look back at his film career.

On Monday, January 11, 2016, the world woke up to the news that David Bowie had died on the 10th. His final album, Blackstar, turned out to be a personal farewell made during the final stages of terminal cancer that barely slowed the musician. The Thin White Duke’s final album was released on his 69th birthday, Jan. 8. This writer, among many, believed it told of a new beginning. In some ways it did. One of the music videos that accompanied the album showed Bowie frantically writing as if he had so much more to say.

Bowie, who was born in the rough Brixton section of south London, was one of the greats, up there with The Beatles, Elvis Presley – whose birthday he shared, Tchaikovsky, Amelia Earhart, Picasso, and Lon Chaney. David released his first single “Liza Jane” when he was 17 years old and was still called Davie Jones and playing with the King Bees. In 1966, Davie Jones changed his name to Bowie because a British singer and actor named Davy Jones was playing in a band called The Monkees who were all over the TV and the radio.

Bowie appeared as an alien in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, a Goblin in Labyrinth, a vampire in Tony Scott’s The Hunger, a POW with the kiss of death in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, and not-quite-mad scientist Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s 2006 magical mystery feature The Prestige. He also starred on Broadway as human curiosity Joseph “John” Merrick in The Elephant Man.

Bowie is the reason a lot of people became musicians. Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars came out when I was nine. Before I heard the line “she wants my honey not my money, she’s a funky thigh collector,” I had no idea that was an occupational option.

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Note: The following piece was written the year prior to his passing.

Bowie brought a cast of classic characters to his music, fully drawn personas that owned their sounds, all caught at a slightly different angle than the norm. It didn’t matter if Bowie dressed up in character, when he was the DJ, he was what he played.

You can listen to David Bowie on Amazon Prime

David Bowie started as an actor, well, a mime, but he used that to his advantage in his movie debut, the experimental short X-rated film, “The Image in 1967. Bowie doesn’t say much, just kind of poses. He is, after all, an image. Bowie’s image preceded his music. He hung out in New York waiting for things to happen while his luggage and working papers toured England. He adorned himself with band mates who wouldn’t clash with his polychromatic performance.

Bowie played roles in his music, but he doesn’t act his musical part. Bowie is very well known, and respected, for his music and his acting. A lot of musicians make movies. Elvis Presley’s career was, in so many ways, sidetracked by his film career. Elvis wanted to do serious acting, wanted to be in On The Waterfront. So did Frank Sinatra, another musician who looked good on film. Sinatra got to act his balls off in some truly great films, though. Elvis never got that chance. Bowie did.

All the musicians who did their stints on film went back to music to end their careers. That was their art. I don’t think he will ever have to make a specific choice.

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From the time he channeled his inner Lauren Bacall for the cover art to The Man Who Sold The World, the Thin White Duke married cinematic glamor with audio glam. He’s done both so well, he can do them forever. Bowie’s music career fed his film roles. The guy who busted out in the music scene singing a song about a junkie astronaut made his film debut as an alien. He put them all together as a kind of anthology of creatures on Scary Monsters.

Bowie studied avant-garde theatre and mime under Lindsay Kemp. He debuted on stage in 1967, playing the role of Cloud inPierrot in Turquoise, which was directed by Kemp. He was an extra in the 1966 adaptation of Leslie Thomas’s book The Virgin Soldiers.

Bowie challenged himself in music and film. He was, after all, Homo Superior and I’m not referring to his gender-bending early stage personas. In music, he went from hippie to glam rock to prog and made stops in early metal and proto-punk. Whether he wore pancake makeup or Maybelline, Bowie had a vast palate. Maybe it was his seemingly unmatched eyes or maybe it was something he learned from The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

On stage, Bowie played John Merrick, the twisted human oddity in The Elephant Man on Broadway, without makeup or prosthetics. He twisted his body on his own and spoke his lines both with the constriction of his studied neurofibromatosis and the strength to hit the back row. He contorted himself for 157 performances between 1980 and 1981. He always maintained that he didn’t like the slow pace of movie making. Outside of the recording studio, the spider from Mars thrived in a live setting.

He didn’t shy away from makeup effects in The Hunger. He aged well over 60 years in the film, almost an eternity, finally to the point of living decay to be discarded with the other remnants of his vampire lover’s past romances. The film was overshadowed by the lesbian action of The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Susan Sarandon and French national treasure Catherine Deneuve.

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Director Tony Scott brought the vampires into the MTV generation that Bowie himself helped groom. Bowie does some of his best screen work in The Hunger. He is deeply reflective, he has the time to be, waiting for so long in the doctor’s reception area.

David Bowie’s Station to Station and Low were companions to The Man Who Fell to Earth, which came out in 1976. He had come a long way further than Mars. The album cover was shot in the capsule he had built to his specifications, and had Buck Henry secure the patents for, in the film.

The movie was based on a 1963 science fiction novel by Walter Tevis. Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who plunges to Earth with nothing but a string of gold rings to hock to bring his family, stuck in a drought somewhere in the stars, to the planet of water. It’s a classic rags-to-riches-to-decadent-glad-rag tale of an immigrant who does well in America, kind of like Scarface, especially with all the guys being thrown out of windows.

As the alien inventor, Bowie looks positively fragile, like if he stubbed his toe on a dust-mite he’d fall and never get up again. Until they slice his nipples off and he goes for the sauce. It was a great debut. As far as I can see, the video release eased off one eye-popping scene, but I may have remembered it wrong. The director was Nicolas Roeg, who co-directed and photographed the Mick Jagger Anita Pallenberg classic, Performance in 1970, as well as Track 29, which was produced by George Harrison’s Hand Made Films.

read more: Exploring David Bowie’s Sci-Fi Fascination

I always had a problem with the Romans in Jesus movies. Why do they all have English accents? Is that supposed to give them class? The Anglos were barbarians when the Romans ruled Britannia. Why do we associate them with nobility, civility and style?

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Martin Scorsese, an Italian, cast Bowie as an intellectually and spiritually curious Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ. Pilate is usually portrayed as a bored nobleman. Bowie uses his disinterest disarmingly, though he doesn’t really get through to Willem Dafoe’s blonde-as-a-fresco Jesus.

There are 3,000 drying skulls on Golgotha. Bowie reasons that if those who wanted to change a world that doesn’t want to be changed only counted them, they might just go with the flow. Didn’t they hear his Let’s Dance album?

His Pontius Pilate doesn’t even seem to care if the magic is good or bad, he just wants the magician to stick to his usual tricks. Water to wine is fine, but once you walk on it, things get a little dangerous.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence twists and flows as the current The Bridge on the River Kwai. Who breaks a mime in a POW camp? Japanese New Wave director Nagisa Oshima, that’s who.

Bowie tips into his mime jar to give himself a good, close, British shave on the morning of his execution. A good English officer like Major Jack Celliers would never torture a torturer with chin stubble when planting a Christmas kiss under missiles or mistletoe. Bowie and Ryuichi Sakamoto had been flirting with flirting up to the kiss.

But it was up to Oshima and Bowie to bring the mystery.

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Looking good in Debbie Harry’s leopard skin Hunter quoiff, the laughing gnome Bowie transformed himself into the Goblin King Jareth for Muppets Take Goblin City…ummm…I mean Labyrinth in 1986. With Jim Henson directing a Terry Jones script, Bowie brought Sesame Street to the green lawns of Britain. He asked for very little. “Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave,” he promised.

I always wanted to see a pair up of Bowie’s Jareth with Tim Curry’s Darkness from Legend, but had to settle for Bowie playing the Lord Royal Highness in the 2007 SpongeBob SquarePants TV movie Atlantis SquarePantis. Bowie looked like something out of Yellow Submarine in that. Bowie also had a comic cameo in the all-star pirate comedy Yellowbeard.

Ziggy Stardust was an inspired choice for Andy Warhol in Basquiat (1996), leading Jeffrey Wright through the maze of the underground art scene. Bowie brings a dash of the decomposing vampire from The Hunger as he drains Jean-Michel Basquiat of his artistic juices like so much Campbell’s soup.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PF76qlwWM8s

Bowie has been called electric and magnetic, but it wasn’t until he played Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s 2006 magical duel movie The Prestige that he got to play in the electromagnetic field. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale waved their wands and dangled from strings, but Bowie was the visionary who was asked politely to retire.

Many people don’t realize Bowie was also an excellent puppet master. When he popped up for a performance on Saturday Night Live, he really popped up. The producers bleeped any overt gay flirting references during his 1980 performance of “Boys Keep Swinging” but Bowie came out swinging.

I think it was a trick he learned from playing with Marlene Dietrich in Just a Gigolo the year before. In the film directed by David Hemmings, Bowie played World War I Prussian officer Paul von Przygodski, whose bulge is discovered by a Baroness. He played himself on stage in Germany for Christiane F in 1981. He played the affable hitman Colin in the 1985 film Into the Night but turned down the part of the villain Max Zorin in the James Bond film A View to a Kill the same year.

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Bowie played a different kind of villain in a small role in the all-star rock musical Absolute Beginners in 1986. The movie captured a kind of dollhouse sixties feel with an eighties synth-pop sound and Bowie was the devil incarnate as a pop rock manager who sells dreams to a group of young and horny “negrophiles.”

He didn’t like Rosanna Arquette’s sauce in the 1991 film The Linguini Incident but by 1998 he twirled in the Spaghetti Western Il Mio West, directed by Giovanni Veronesi, as the most feared gunfighter west of the West End. In 1992, be played Phillip Jeffries, an FBI agent shrouded in the mystery of his assignment, in David Lynch’s made-for-movies movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.

In 1999, Bowie played a wary four-eyed gangster named Bernie in Everybody Loves Sunshine directed by Andrew Goth and gothed out to replace Terence Stamp as the host of the TV horror series The Hunger. In 2000, Bowie watched a twelve year old die of a mysterious illness in Mr. Rice’s Secret and played himself in the supermodel murder mystery comedy Zoolander. Bowie reunited with Rip Torn in the 2008 movie August, directed by Austin Chick.

read more: Why Mick Ronson is Essential to David Bowie’s Legacy

David Bowie was no chameleon. He never painted himself a shade of any emerging force in order to blend into a trendy background. He stands apart in music. (Although, he was a painter, too. Before he played Andy Warhol in Basquiat, he started studied art at Bromley Technical High School, briefly going to Croydon School of Art. 

Though he played many personas in order to get an album or a performance across, he doesn’t play the part of a rock star, glam star, elder statesman or serious musician. But he did act the shit out of those songs when performing them. From the mounting frustration of his sexual revolution in “We Are The Dead” to the nostalgic regret of “Slip Away” the consummate actor always hit all his marks.

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That’s not to say Bowie didn’t blend into any cinema landscape. His performances were nuanced, regardless of how large they are. They contain arias of the grandest operatic scale, even when the characters just have time to nip off for a quickie in the barn. Bowie breathed his parts, as deeply or as shallowly as they were meant to be drawn.

This article first appeared on January 8th, 2015. We’ll put it back out there every year around his birthday.