Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Selective Guide to Bowie's Movies

Although I wrote about David Bowie as an actor before back in the old “British Actor of the Month” series (maybe I should bring that back one of these days), I thought a more thorough guide to his appearances at the movies was needed. Now, he’s been in a lot of movies, so these are only the ones I can recommend to you. Or, as the case may be, strongly recommend that you don’t see. (And they’re features only. No Sponge Bob, no Jazzin’ for Blue Jean. The latter I strongly recommend.)

The Man Who Fell to Earth. In Bowie’s first ever major film role, he plays an alien who’s come to Earth on a rescue mission but who quickly gets taken advantage of and turned into a drunk. Uh… maybe? It’s very arty, so you’re never quite sure what’s really going on. Infamous for its full frontal alien scene, it's really one of the classics of 70s sci-fi. And if you don’t get it, at least the cinematography’s nice.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. No, Bowie isn’t Mr. Lawrence. (That’s Tom Conti.) Here he plays a paratrooper causing trouble in a prison camp who catches the attention of the Japanese camp leader. The director claims the attraction between the two isn’t supposed to be gay. Whatever. It’s a very interesting contemplation of two very different cultures in conflict. Many fans and critics agree that this is the best performance of Bowie’s film career.

Labyrinth. Hold it—stop rolling your eyes. Yes, I know this is a kid’s movie. Yes, I know they aren’t exactly the best songs he’s ever written. Yes, I know how tight those pants are—I’m not blind, you know. But, even though its key demographic is twelve-year-old girls, Labyrinth is far more than a kid’s movie. It’s fun and imaginative (Jim Henson directed, after all), has some complex psychological stuff going on, and is even the teensiest bit empowering. It makes quite a nice package… Ok, wrong choice of words there.

Basquiat. In this biopic, Bowie plays Andy Warhol, who, late in his life, collaborated with Jean-Michel Basquiat. It’s a good indie film about an interesting artist, and Bowie is great as Warhol, even though, other than the authentic wig, he doesn’t look much like him, nor is he doing an impression per se. I once had a professor who is one of the premier Warhol scholars, and he said this is his favorite on-screen version of the artist.

Zoolander. Bowie has a cameo as himself to judge a walk-off between two male models. He’s in it for less than 5 minutes, but this is perhaps the most hilarious scene in a movie full of hilarious scenes.

The Prestige. In this film about competing magicians, Bowie plays inventor Nikola Tesla, who, in his day, was the coolest person around and way ahead of his time. Sound familiar? And given that Tesla is rumored to have traveled back from the future, who’s to say they’re not the same person? Anyway, it’s a pretty good movie with a big twist ending and “a lot” of Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman.

Velvet Goldmine. Not exactly a Bowie movie—especially since he bashed the script and refused to allow any of his songs to be used in it. Todd Haynes uses this Citizen Kane-like story about a glam rocker who is similar to but in no way supposed to be David Bowie *wink, wink* to examine identity and biography and to pay loving tribute to the 70s. Despite the lack of actual Bowie, it’s got a great soundtrack and is a fun, glittery fantasy. A must for Ewan McGreggor fans.

The Hunger. Bowie and vampires! Yay—hold that thought. In the movie’s first act, Bowie is very compelling as an immortal who finds himself aging… very quickly. After that, it’s a postmodern mess with some weird lesbian thing between Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon. But, for some reason, goths really seem to like this movie. So before you watch, ask yourself just how much the world doesn’t seem to understand your inner torment.

Absolute Beginners. Or, as I like to call it, Absolute, uh, Something Else*. Julien Temple of Sex Pistols documentary fame directed this musical tribute to the swinging sixties and racial tension. But if you think that sounds bad… you’re right. Bowie, in addition to writing the title song—which is the only good thing this movie’s got going for it—has a small part as an advertising exec, but gets upstaged by Ray Davies.

The Linguini Incident. Bowie plays the male lead opposite Rosanna Arquette in this extremely quirky romantic comedy. It’s not awful, but it is pretty weird. And it has a brief though amusing cameo from Iman. Kind of hard to find, and you might not want to make the effort.

Arthur and the Invisibles. Bowie does a fine job voicing the villain in this half-animated children’s adventure, but the CGI characters look weird, and the premise is a little thin. I didn’t think it was that believable as a fantasy, and, anyway, it leaves too much to be answered in the sequels, which have never been released in the US. (Incidentally, Lou Reed takes over for Bowie in those two movies, and Iggy Pop voices his son. Very clever, M. Besson.)

The Last Temptation of Christ. Though perhaps not as scandalous as when it was first released, this film is still controversial. Kind of interesting, though, honestly, Scorsese has made a lot of better films. Bowie has an unremarkable cameo as Pontius Pilot that leaves you wishing you were watching Jesus Christ Superstar.

Recommended Documentaries
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. A documentary that captures Bowie’s final concert as Ziggy. The cinema verite (yes, it’s supposed to look that cheap) style is perfect for capturing the raw sexual energy of the performance. It’s very simply shot, but its one of my favorite concert films because it lets the event occur with very little interference.

Cracked Actor. This BBC TV documentary followed Bowie around during his Diamond Dogs tour in the mid 70s. Two interesting things about this one: First of all, it contains pretty much the only footage of that tour, which was the first major tour by a rock star to use elaborate sets and staging. Second, off stage it captures Bowie at his coked-up best. For some reason, the BBC refuses to give this doc an official release, so YouTube is your friend.

Serious Moonlight. A direct-to-video concert film of the Asian leg of Bowie’s tour supporting Let’s Dance. Granted, a lot of people think he sold out on that record, but the band here is kick-ass, and they do justice to his late 70s stuff. Sure, the concert production was a little overblown, but it’s still good music.

Ricochet. Another direct-to-video documentary, this one uses Bowie’s Serious Moonlight tour to examine the role of Western pop culture on the East. Concert footage is mixed in with Bowie driving around Singapore and some staged stuff about Chinese teens trying to score tickets. It’s kind of intellectual, but it’s included on the same DVD as Serious Moonlight, so you might as well give it a go.

A Reality Tour. This direct-to-DVD concert film captures performances from Bowie’s last tour. At well-over two hours it has some of the finest performances of Bowie’s later career. The sheer energy of the show is amazing considering he was over 50 at the time and months away from a heart attack. There will most likely be no more new Bowie concerts to film, but what a high note to go out on.

*That begins with "s," ends with "t," and has an "h" and an "i" somewhere in the middle.

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