We woke this morning to the sad news that David Bowie has died, passing away Sunday January 10 after a long battle with cancer. But while he’ll primarily (rightly so) be remembered as a pioneering pop star, songwriter and performer, Bowie’s contribution to Film—and independent film in particular—is significant.
As a performer both onstage and in front of the camera, Bowie lent his innate alien charisma to a menagerie of oddballs both real and invented, from Ziggy Stardust to Nikola Tesla, imbuing each new persona with an otherworldly sense of cool and making them impossible to ignore.
As a human signifier of bohemian authenticity for half a century, David Bowie’s presence in a movie was always a sign that the project was going to be unique. Simply put, he elevated everything he was in—from weirdo sci-fi, to under-the-radar biopics to cutting-edge comedy.
So please join us in remembering three of our favorite moments from David Bowie’s work in independent film.
On the surface, Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film Basquiat is a pretty straightforward biopic, tracing the rise of graffiti-artist-turned-art-world-superstar Jean-Michael Basquiat with tasteful economy and a great lead performance by Jeffery Wright.
But as an art world insider himself, Schnabel’s perspective on the cutthroat and often ridiculous Manhattan micro-economy of “white walls, white wine white people” is strikingly intimate and—one assumes—well researched.
This authenticity extends to the menagerie of colorful characters drifting in and out of Basquiat’s life, including eventual patron and collaborator Andy Warhol played with fey, introverted aplomb by Bowie, who undoubtedly understood a thing or two about inhabiting the role of an innovative creative-arts iconoclast.
Bowie clearly has a blast playing Warhol, whose low-key recognition of Basquiat’s talent when ambushed by the young punk at a swank power lunch comes across as both wonderfully human and dryly comic. It’s proof that Bowie could pump blood into even the most idiosyncratic characters, even if they were real people.
THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH
Nicholas Roeg’s chilly 1976 sci-fi flick The Man Who Fell to Earth is the epitome of a “difficult film.” Eschewing easy plot and resisting access to the lead character’s interiority, the movie is something of precursor to 2013’s Under the Skin.
Scarlett Johansson does a great job in the latter film, but it’s hard to argue that there’s anyone better suited to portraying an inscrutable alien castaway than David Bowie—especially during his conceptual, mid-70s heyday.
As humanoid extraterrestrial Thomas Newton, Bowie crash-lands in the American southwest in search of water for his dying planet. But that’s just his first mistake, as Bowie’s ice-cold cipher puts on human skin and becomes a dispassionate tourist through multiple extremes of the human experience.
It’s not E.T. but Bowie’s portrayal of Newton is as intellectually provocative as anything in Kubrick’s 2001. As Roger Ebert put it in his “Great Movies” review, Bowie is “Slender, elegant, remote…[Bowie] evokes this alien so successfully that one could say, without irony, this is a role he was born to play.”
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST
Despite its pedigree, Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ was much more of a run-and-gun production than its biblical content would suggest, boiling the tropes of the biblical epic down to an intimate character study.
Bowie appears in one scene in an extended featured cameo as Pontius Pilate, the Roman beaurocrat who confers with Jesus and ultimately signs his execution order.
Typically, the role of Pilate is a thankless one. In many ways, he’s an unwitting cog in the Passion: an uncomprehending agent of the Roman oligarchy manipulated into carrying out the whims of the Jewish ruling class. Bowie, however, portrays Pilate as a curious, thoughtful man who’s just trying to understand.
Bowie’s Pilate is calm and sympathetic. He’s not an enemy; he’s merely an outsider. He’s a man with responsibilities, a servant to his own faith just as much as Jesus is to his. He has compassion for the “magician” Jesus, and struggles to comprehend why exactly it is that they’ve both found themselves in this position.
It’s a scene that’s been depicted countless times over two millennia, but Bowie grounds the tableaux in stark reality, proving that as an actor he could bring tangibility to the fantastical just as easily as he could bring weirdness to the mundane.
Other great David Bowie performances include The Prestige, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Zoolander and Ricky Gervais’s Extras, among others. Do you have a favorite David Bowie moment on film? Let us know in the comments below…
Matt Warren / Film Independent Digital Content Manager