Bowie on film: the stories behind 10 classic David Bowie movies

The poster to David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell To Earth
The poster for David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell To Earth (Image credit: Archive Photos/Getty Images)

David Bowie always knew the power of theatrics. Whether he was studying mime with Lindsey Kemp in the late 60s or adopting a series of different performances, acting in various forms was part of his artistic vision. It was inevitable that he would eventually appear on both the big and small screens in a range of roles, from the subject of landmark documentaries to the star of arthouse movies and Hollywood blockbusters alike. Here are the stories behind 10 essential David Bowie films.

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Cracked Actor (1975)

The stars aligned in the summer of 1974 when Alan Yentob flew out to the US with a BBC film crew to shoot a documentary profile of Bowie around his Diamond Dogs tour. The pale, skeletal Englishman abroad they encountered was jittery and fragile, wired on cocaine and drowning in American pop culture. But they also caught an embryonic superstar on the cusp of morphing from alien glam rocker to chart-topping, zoot-suited plastic soulman with the Young Americans album.

Almost half a century later, Cracked Actor is firmly established as an essential piece of the Bowie canon. It is also one of the finest rock documentaries ever made, from its endlessly quotable druggy ramblings to its teasingly rare glimpses of Bowie’s early 70s tours, which he would later regret failing to immortalise capture on film. Crucially, the striking image it projected of the exiled rocker as a milk-skinned, flame-haired stranger in a strange land, cruising America’s desert hinterlands in the back of a limo, would inspire Nicolas Roeg to cast him as an actual alien.

“That was basically his screen test for The Man Who Fell To Earth,” Yentob told the BBC in 2013. “The notion of this Martian let loose in America is of course what Nic Roeg was thinking of as well.”

The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)

Bowie’s first major screen role, as an extra-terrestrial tourist lost in the alien weirdness of America is rich in autobiographical echoes. Director Nicolas Roeg was a perfect fit for Bowie: both were visionary English mavericks who enjoyed a fertile imperial phase of creative originality and critical acclaim across the 1970s, each bringing avant-garde methods into the mainstream. 

Bowie arrived for the New Mexico shoot during a period of heavy cocaine use, and reportedly struggled to keep his promise to Roeg not to use drugs on set. “I was stoned out of my mind from beginning to end,” he later claimed.

Even if true, he still gives a radiant and magnetic star turn as Thomas Jerome Newton, a homesick alien trying to save his native planet from disaster, only to be sidelined by malign foes and earthly temptations. Bowie downplayed the film’s space-travel angle, preferring to read the fable-like plot in more mythic terms. He told Creem magazine that Newton represents “man in his pure form who’s corrupted or brought down by the corruption around him. But it’s never definitely said where he comes from, and it really doesn’t matter. I mean, he could come from under the sea, or another dimension, or anywhere. The important thing is what happens between the people. It’s a very sad, tender love story that evolves over a long period of time.”

Cryptic, hallucinatory and luminously beautiful, The Man Who Fell To Earth remains a landmark in cerebral science fiction cinema. It clearly struck a deep personal chord with Bowie, who revisited Newton at the end of his life in his hit stage musical, Lazarus.

Just A Gigolo (1978)

Cementing his late 1970s love affair with Berlin, Bowie followed his triumphant starring debut in The Man Who Fell To Earth with this ill-fated period piece set in the German capital during Hitler’s rise to power. Actor-director David Hemmings cast Bowie as Paul Ambrosius von Przygodski, a former Prussian officer traumatised by the Great War, who becomes a gigolo in 1920s Berlin.

An uneven mix of black comedy and serious drama, Just A Gigolo was released in 1978 to hostile reviews, and dropped out of circulation for decades. But critics who attacked Bowie’s wooden performance “missed the point,” according to Hemmings. “The whole point about that character is that he is a sponge,” the director told me decades later. “He is supposed to be cold and somewhat thick. You don’t get Ziggy Stardust if you want to see someone playing a German soldier who survived the war.”

The film’s poor reception sabotaged Bowie and Hemmings, whose planned concert film of Bowie’s 1978 Stage tour was subsequently shelved and remains buried even today. Viewed through modern eyes, Just A Gigolo remains a mess, but a richly ambitious mess full of fascinating ingredients, including German screen legend Marlene Dietrich in her final role.

Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (1979)

Bowie and his team summoned feted American documentary maker DA Pennebaker – director of the classic Bob Dylan tour chronicle Don’t Look Back – to shoot Ziggy’s rock’n’roll suicide farewell show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973.

The film was initially planned as a promotional short, but Pennebaker was sufficiently impressed by Bowie’s electric charisma and theatrical vision to push for a full-length feature, blending live performance with backstage glimpses of the off-duty glam messiah and his entourage, inluding wife Angie and Ringo Starr.

The climactic shock announcement of Ziggy’s symbolic death feels almost incidental now, but the raw footage of Mick Ronson and the Spiders in their proto-punk prime is exhilarating, with storming versions of All The Young Dudes, Changes, Cracked Actor, Time, a cover of VU’s White Light/White Heat, and more. 

Hampered by muddy sound, murky visuals and Bowie’s reluctance to revisit his past, the film then spent almost a decade in limbo before its theatrical and video release. Later anniversary editions, digitally remastered and remixed, finally restored this historic velvet goldmine to its full flawed glory. 

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)

Drawing poise and stillness from his early mime training with Lindsay Kemp, Bowie gave one of his most refined acting performances in Japanese director Nagisa Oshima’s elegant literary adaptation. Adapting Laurens van der Post’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Seed and The Sower, Oshima cast Bowie as self-sacrificing British prisoner-of-war, Major Jack Celliers after seeing his role as Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man on Broadway, noting that the star displayed “an inner spirit that is indestructible”.

Set in a Japanese prison camp on Java in 1942, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a poetic ruminaton on national honour, hidden shame and the unspoken homoerotic sadism of war. Bowie spent a month shooting the film on the Polynesian island of Rarotonga alongside co-stars including Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto and cult actor-director ‘Beat’ Takeshi. He later called Celliers “the most credible performance” he had given to that point. Many critics would agree that he never bettered it.

The Hunger (1983)

Tony Scott, brother of Ridley, made his directing debut with this stylish soft-porn vampire thriller set in contemporary New York. Bowie ages by several centuries as John Blaylock, a suave bloodsucker entangled in a bisexual love triangle with Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon.

Memorably opening with a sinister nightclub seduction, superbly intercut with Bauhaus performing Bela Lugosi’s Dead, the film was widely panned as glossy trash on release. But it has since amassed a cult reputation, not least as a rare big-screen document of the post-punk, goth, and new romantic subcultures that Bowie helped inspire. Life imitated art when Bowie and Sarandon began a brief off-screen romance, though she later declined his marriage proposal.

Bowie spoke fondly of The Hunger for years afterwards. “It really is a great opening,” he told Rolling Stone in 1987. “It loses its way about there, but it’s still an interesting movie.”

 Decades later, Scott said: “I loved Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth. One director who I’ve always looked up to, and stolen from, is Nic Roeg. The Hunger was a total rip-off of Performance with Mick Jagger.” 

Labyrinth (1986)

Bowie spent most of the late 1980s in creative limbo, later dismissing this period in his career as “simply dreadful”. Signing up to play Jareth in Labyrinth – a goblin king who kidnaps a human baby in order to gain sinister power over his teenage sister Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) – could be dismissed as just another bizarre wrong turn in this lost decade. 

Yet Muppets mastermind Jim Henson’s fairytale puppet fantasy has endured over time, partly because of its feminist message about a young woman defying the authority of a controlling, entitled, older man. But also because the singer’s playful, mischievous performance as a malevolent charmer with glam-metal hair and prominent trouser bulge made him a sex symbol to a whole new generation. Bowie contributed five songs to the soundtrack, claiming on official press notes that the role appealed because he wanted to be involved in a child-friendly film.

“The script itself was terribly amusing without being vicious or spiteful or bloody,” he said, “and it had a lot more heart in it than many other special effects movies.”

Absolute Beginners (1986)

Renowned today as a veteran punk-scene chonicler and rockumentary maestro, director Julien Temple almost destroyed his embryonic career with this over-hyped, patchy pop musical based on the feted Colin MacInnes novel about 1950s Soho. Temple had already tested Bowie’s acting skills in 1984 with dual comedic roles in the Grammy-winning extended promo clip Jazzin’ For Blue Jean. For Absolute Beginners, he cast the singer as oily advertising mogul Vendice Partners alongside a cast including Patsy Kensit, Ray Davies, James Fox, Robbie Coltrane and more.

The film was a critical and commercial bomb, but today it plays more like an admirably ambitious folly than total train wreck. And while Bowie’s performance is stilted and stiff, his soaringly romantic title track for the film became one of his most beloved and successful singles, clothed in a stylish Temple-directed video. Speaking to Empire in 2017, Temple recalled Bowie’s fondness for vintage British cinema: “he loved Tony Hancock and the Ealing comedies. He could watch Tony Hancock’s The Rebel on a weekly basis and he would laugh and laugh.”

Basquiat (1996)

As somebody who moved in the same arty-party circles as Andy Warhol, and even wrote a song about him on Hunky Dory, Bowie proved a good fit to play the iconic modern artist in this heartfelt biopic. Artist turned film director Julian Schnabel plays posthumous homage to his former friend Jean-Michel Basquiat, played here with panache by Jeffrey Wright. Basquiat was a charismatic, charming, volatile and self-absorbed heroin addict who embraced both success and excess in equal measure.

But Schnabel’s film was also a fond tribute to Warhol. Comparing Bowie’s affectionate, camp, wobbly-wigged performance to earlier portrayals, longtime Warhol associate Paul Morrissey told People magazine: “Bowie was the best by far. You come away from Basquiat thinking Andy was comical and amusing, not a pretentious, phony piece of shit, which is how others show him.” 

Bowie was even allowed to borrow Warhol’s actual wig, glasses and jacket from the Warhol Museum for the shoot.

Moonage Daydream (2022)

Freewheeling through Bowie’s vast pop culture legacy, Oscar-winning director Brett Morgen’s sprawling audiovisual collage documentary pays lavish IMAX-sized tribute to the late avant-rock icon. Drawing heavily on live performance footage and archive interview clips, all densely layered with psychedelic visual treatments, Moonage Daydream contains stylistic echoes of Morgen’s previous rock films, notably Crossfire Hurricane (2012) and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015).

It adds little new to the overcrowded canon of posthumous Bowie releases, but it does features rare and thrilling performances of classic numbers including Space Oddity, All The Young Dudes, Oh! You Pretty Things, ‘Heroes’, Absolute Beginners, Let’s Dance, Hallo Spaceboy, Blackstar and more. For all its high-minded intentions, Morgen’s mixtape marathon is a hit and miss affair. But as a high-gloss video jukebox of some of the greatest art-pop songs ever written, this sense-swamping spectacular is a crash course for the ravers. 

The best of the rest

Beyond his modest portfolio of starring and co-starring credits, David Bowie’s screen career is also peppered with striking cameos and eccentric supporting roles. He played himself on multiple occasions, whether recreating a late 70s Berlin concert on a New York stage for the gritty teenage drug drama Christiane F (1981) or gatecrashing Ben Stiller’s clownish fashion-show catwalk antics in Zoolander (2001). Bowie’s off-beat acting choices often mirrored his love of comedy and friendship with comedians: he played a shark alongside Peter Cook and a boatload of Monty Python members in the flop pirate spoof Yellowbeard (1983), and a bumbling hit-man for John Landis in the comic thriller Into The Night (1985). 

But more impressive than these goofy comic turns were Bowie’s high-profile cameos for major directors like Martin Scorsese, David Lynch and Christopher Nolan. He may occupy barely four minutes of screen time in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), but his finely rendered snapshot of a haughty Pontius Pilate condemning Jesus to death is a chilling dramatic highlight. “He left behind a remarkable body of work,” Scorsese told Entertainment Weekly in 2016. “His music and his image and his focus were always changing, always in motion, and with every movement, every change, he left a deep imprint on the culture.” 

As an early champion of David Lynch’s work, it was perhaps inevitable that Bowie would end up working with his fellow inner-space explorer. Their paths finally crossed when the rocker made a strikingly surreal appearance as rogue FBI agent Philip Jeffries in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). “He was unique, like Elvis was unique,” Lynch told Pitchfork in 2017. Bowie was increasingly reclusive in his autumn years, initially declining Christopher Nolan’s offer to play maverick genius inventor Nikola Tesla in the sumptuous historical magic-trick thriller The Prestige (2006). But Nolan persisted and ended up capturing one of the late rocker’s most memorable, mirthful shorter roles. “Tesla was this other-worldly, ahead-of-his-time figure,” the director told Entertainment Weekly in 2016, “and at some point it occurred to me he was the original Man Who Fell To Earth.”

This piece appear in Classic Rock Presents: David Bowie – The Complete Story. Order it online and have it delivered straight to your door.

The cover of Classic Rock Presents: David Bowie

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Stephen Dalton

Stephen Dalton has been writing about all things rock for more than 30 years, starting in the late Eighties at the New Musical Express (RIP) when it was still an annoyingly pompous analogue weekly paper printed on dead trees and sold in actual physical shops. For the last decade or so he has been a regular contributor to Classic Rock magazine. He has also written about music and film for Uncut, Vox, Prog, The Quietus, Electronic Sound, Rolling Stone, The Times, The London Evening Standard, Wallpaper, The Film Verdict, Sight and Sound, The Hollywood Reporter and others, including some even more disreputable publications.