Remembering David Bowie (1947-2016)
When David Bowie passed away late Sunday at the age of 69, the world lost an inimitable artist and an incomparable screen presence, both vocally and visually. Here are some of the films we’ll remember him by.
Saying that David Bowie played “The Goblin King” requires some explanation. We’re not talking about that swollen wart from the first Hobbit movie. We’re talking sly ol’ David Bowie, rakish and darkly charming, wearing what he probably threw on to go the grocery store that day: electric blue eyeshadow, a hair metal wig, a satiny blouse, and tights. His character’s motives in Labyrinth touch on some pretty weird territory — the then-39-year-old is trying to kidnap a baby and seduce a 15-year-old Jennifer Connolly — but the real purpose of Bowie’s presence is, of course, musical. “As the World Falls Down” is the number he sings while he and Connolly slow-dance in a masquerade ball. He also sang the rocking “Underground,” the operatic “Within You,” and wrote the wacky “Chilly Down,” but the track fans reference the most is “Magic Dance.” Just walk into a room of people the right age and disposition (32-ish and nerdy), say “You remind me of the babe,” and see what happens. Labyrinth was a lot of kids’ first introduction to the strange power of David Bowie, and a lot of them never stopped being fans. — David Conrad
Part heist movie and part romance, Leos Carax‘s Mauvais Sang is the rare film that delves into the midnight hours of a burgeoning young love without becoming precious. These emotions and circumstances culminate in a sequence sometime after the boss has gone to sleep between Alex (Denis Lavant) and Anna (Juliette Binoche.) Alex flips on the radio; he settles on Serge Reggiani’s “J’ai pas d’regret,” which is altogether too depressing and too romantic for their evening. The DJ announces the next request, David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” The guitar slide and drums kick in, and Alex steps away from the apartment.
What follows is a physical performance somewhere between ballet and Serkis motion capture. Lavant careens through the streets of Paris, perhaps galvanized by disease, perhaps by the torment of not being able to love Anna, perhaps by the music. When Lavant flies into a full sprint, the camera hardly keeps up; when he stops to playfully cartwheel, the camera almost flies past him. The sequence is exhilarating yet illustrates young fear incarnate. The musical choice, though grimly appropriate, tempers this scene and gives it levity. The sequence is recalled in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, excised torment. The music David Bowie gave us is fascinating because it defies singular use; “Modern Love” can be a tortured statement on death and anxiety, or an exciting call to joy and freedom from institution. David Bowie gave the world music that takes a lifetime to sort. He also gave me this scene, perhaps my favorite ever filmed. Rest in peace, Thin White Duke. — Alex Christian Lovendahl
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
In the film version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, writer-director Stephen Chbosky needed to find a song that felt cinematic, one that could blow away three friends and make them want to live in discovery of that song forever. A song that has to be perfect. Chbosky was looking for a song that could make these characters “feel infinite” and found David Bowie’s “Heroes,” a song that fits every checkpoint perfectly, it’s insane to think it wasn’t the song originally used in the book.
“Heroes” is pretty much a perfect song. It’s so great, it can even be beautiful when covered by The Wallflowers and put in Roland Emmerich‘s Godzilla. It’s the type of song that can give you chills and blow your mind, even after hearing it millions of times and for decades. Because of that, “Heroes” encapsulates everything that needs to be said in The Perks of Being a Wallflower: the idea that life can be wonderful, especially when so much of it is ahead of you.
We all want to be the heroes of our own stories, much like Charlie wants to be in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Bowie didn’t give us that power, but he gave us the soundtrack to becoming our own hero, the song that’ll make us want to stand up on the back of a truck on a cold night and drive because nothing can hurt us when “Heroes” is playing. Through his music and especially for me, “Heroes,” Bowie gave us the perfect song that could make us feel powerful, important, full of possibilities and hope. He could make us feel infinite. He could make us heroes, even if it’s just for one day. — Ross Bonaime
I’m not the biggest David Bowie fan, yet he is inextricably linked to the moment of a major shift for me as a fan of movies. I haven’t actively avoided him; I liked Bowie as Nikola Tesla in The Prestige, and though I don’t harbor any great love for Labyrinth (not having grown up with it), he’s undeniably magnetic as the Goblin King. Yet, the first movie I think of when I hear his name just hearkens back to his music.
I saw David Fincher‘s Se7en in the late ’90s, as I began an attempt to broaden my own horizons and see more films that might be beyond my comfort zone. Sometimes, that didn’t work. And if I had known any more detail about what Se7en was about before I saw it, I might never have done so. And I’d have robbed myself of one of the most significant film experiences of my life. The film was, to me, simultaneously abhorrent and riveting, and after the finale blew my mind, I sat there absorbing it, as David Bowie’s “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” played over those ragged credits that stuttered in disturbingly reverse order. I’d seen something different, something that grabbed me and didn’t let go and changed my perceptions of what a movie could do. I’m still far from the most adventurous filmgoer, but Se7en did its part to expand my limited perceptions, and I still consider it one of the best-written endings I’ve ever seen.
“The Hearts Filthy Lesson” marked a shift in David Bowie’s career, as he experimented with a new industrial sound, and sought his first hit in several years. Certainly, its inclusion in Se7en fit the macabre tone of the song’s disturbing music video. Whenever I hear it, it reminds me of my own transition as a guy who likes movies. Its sound is discordant, off-putting (particularly in context), yet nonetheless conjures optimism and excitement. The song is a lament, but for me, it’s about the joy of the movies. — Nigel Druitt
The Life Aquatic