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Dissecting David Bowie’s Film and TV Legacy

Today on Nerdist News, we’re dissecting the man, the myth, the intergalactic legend that was David Bowie in his on-screen personas outside of music. For more, read Kyle Anderson’s ode to him, below.

The idea that David Bowie has the capability to die is absurd to me. He seemed totally beyond that kind of lowly, earthbound construct. His persona was so tied to alien life, immortality, and never being tied to a single style–musically or otherwise–that I assumed the parameters of human life did not apply to him. But, cancer has once again proven to be the great equalizer and here we are in a world where David Bowie no longer draws breath. At only 69 too. I’m not going to get into the usual “it’s not fair” or “he deserved better” because it’s self-evident. David Bowie should not have died of cancer, no more than anyone should.

I remember when I was about 7 years old and I was in my uncle’s basement looking through all the piles of things he had lying around. One thing I came upon was the cassette tape of Bowie’s 1973 album Aladdin Sane. I was simultaneously creeped out and intrigued: it was so unlike any image I’d seen before. Bowie had an otherworldly quality that I couldn’t get out of my head.


It wasn’t until many years later that I’d start listening to this music beyond simply hearing songs on the radio, and in high school I picked up Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, arguably his two most seminal works. He released albums in such rapid succession that it’s amazing only six months separate the two. Hunky Dory is a quasi-musical about working class life, while Ziggy is a full-on glam rock explosion. Can people’s minds not be blown when listening to either of these albums?

“I’m not a prophet or a stone age man, just a mortal with potential of a superman,” he said on Hunky Dory’s “Quicksand.” At once, it’s all true, and none of it is.

Anyway, I could talk about how important and GOOD his music is forever, or how Station to Station is an under-appreciated masterpiece, or how it’s a travesty none of his albums ever reached #1 in the United States. But, all of that has been said before and will be said again. It should be. He is/was/and ever shall be a musical and lyrical genius, whose influence has been felt for the past 40+ years.

Instead, I’m going to talk a little bit about his career in film. On top of everything else he did that was amazing, David Bowie was also a very accomplished, very good actor who got to work with some of the finest filmmakers of all time. His first big feature film role came in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 epic, The Man Who Fell to Earth.

This movie is a trip. Like all of Roeg’s movies, it has amazing visuals and a narrative you understand more intuitively than logically. Bowie played the titular alien visitor who becomes a technology billionaire on Earth simply to fund building a return spacecraft to bring water to his dying planet. That’s narratively what the movie’s about, but it’s also about watching David Bowie, who had been a Starman for a while, actually embrace his alien nature.

Bowie is great in this movie, and it’s not an easy role for a relative newcomer. Afterwards, he popped up in other movies here and there. He was Catherine Deneuve’s dying vampire lover in Tony Scott’s 1983 movie The Hunger, and the mercurial and magnetic POW in a Japanese prison camp in that same year’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, directed by Nagisa Oshima. Both great performances.

But, I’m sure most of you remember him as Jareth the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s trippy-as-codpieces 1986 fantasy film, Labyrinth. Can anyone not dance magic dance when prompted? I think not.

He also appears in one of the most memorable scenes in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ as Pontius Pilate.

He was in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, he played Andy Warhol in the film Basquiat, he memorably played himself in Zoolander and on Extras, and he was truly excellent as the uber-scientist Nicola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. Whenever David Bowie appeared in a film, you knew he was going to make it special. As in music, there was a magic about his presence that elevated the world around him.

There’s much, much more to talk about surrounding David Bowie, and it will always be sad to think that this spark of cosmic energy has dimmed for us. But the fact that he touched many so profoundly through his art is a great testament to his life. A life of never adhering to what society assumed he ought to be. He blazed his own trail, he paddled his own canoe. He is Ziggy Stardust, he is the Thin White Duke, he is Major Tom.

Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.

Images: British Lion Film Corporation/RCA Records

Kyle Anderson is the weekend editor, a film and TV critic for, and a bona fide Bowie fanatic. Follow him on Twitter.

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