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A guide to your David Bowie memorial movie night
By
Matthew Parsons

Published

January 15, 2016

Genre

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This story was originally published on Jan. 15, 2016. It was updated Jan. 7, 2017.

It's been a year since the passing of David Bowie, and I think we can all agree that things went downhill from there. Correlation is not causation, of course. But the world was definitely better when Bowie was still in it. So, the time around what would have been Bowie's 70th birthday (Jan. 8) and the first anniversary of his death (Jan. 10) is a time for music fans, movie nerds and assorted weirdos from every corner of the globe to gather, lumps in our throats, and raise a glass (of milk, and a red bell pepper) to the memory of a genius.

If you're hoping to mark this anniversary in some way, you are officially one of the good guys and we want to help you. So: here is our handpicked, specially curated program of visual Bowieana for an evening's entertainment and edification. It's built around two feature films, with an assortment of music videos and TV appearances scattered throughout for good measure. Taken as a whole, we think it's a pretty good overview of Bowie's career.

If you're going to present the whole thing, start early because it's four-and-a-half hours long. Not that Bowie isn't worth it, but there's no shame in picking and choosing.

Prelude

Let's begin with a few short subjects, like in old-timey movie theatres. First up, the "Blackstar" video:

This is the first of two videos Bowie released in advance of his final album, Blackstar. Bowie was well aware of his illness when he wrote the song and made the video. But when he unveiled it in November of 2015, the public had no inkling that there was anything wrong.

In retrospect, Bowie clearly conceived "Blackstar" as a meditation on his own imminent passing, but we couldn't have known at the time. The song and video are both composed of vague symbols and images that hint at Bowie's intentions, rather than stating anything outright. Right up until the end, he was rock's finest purveyor of riddles and enigmas.

Starting the evening with this serves two purposes. Firstly, it situates us in the present: Bowie is gone; he left us with this. And secondly, it sets the tone of alienating strangeness that dominates the first half of this program. You can't toast Bowie without a generous helping of alienating strangeness.

Next, we jump way back in time to the precise moment when Bowie became a superstar — his performance of "Starman" on the BBC's Top of the Pops in 1972:

The key thing to note about this video is that everything about it is wonderful. That outfit. Those outfits. The way Bowie throws his arm around Mick Ronson in the first chorus. Trevor Bolder's ridiculous sideburns.

But more importantly, this performance spurred a moment of clarity for a number of England's young people who tuned in that night. Madonna said Bowie showed her "it was OK to be different." She wasn't the only one. Marc Riley (from the Fall), Siouxsie Sioux, Gary Numan and Ian McCulloch (from Echo and the Bunnymen) all count this broadcast as a formative experience. Writer Chris O'Leary called it "nothing short of the revolution, televised." 

This was the public's introduction to Ziggy Stardust. It was the moment when it became clear that Bowie was more than that guy with the one-hit-wonder about Major Tom.

Let's have one more TV appearance before we get to our first feature. This one's an ocean away from Top of the Pops: "Young Americans" on The Dick Cavett Show in 1974:

Incredibly, this is from only two-and-a-half years after "Starman" on Top of the Pops. And now Bowie's wearing a suit and singing Motown pastiches. I can't think of a more head-spinning transformation in all of pop music. 

Bowie looks like he's having a blast in this video. But with his fame increasing, things were starting to go pear-shaped in his private life. He was developing a debilitating cocaine addiction that would eventually lead to some fairly shocking behaviour — as well as Bowie's second-best known character, the Thin White Duke.

Which leads us nicely into the first feature of our double-header.

First feature: The Man Who Fell to Earth

Bowie used to say he didn't remember any of 1975. This was the absolute nadir of Bowie's addiction, and he was acting even more strangely than usual. He kept himself holed up in his swanky New York hotel, staying awake for days at a time, reading about sorcery and Nazis, and forcing his guests to photocopy their faces — eyes open — on the gigantic colour Xerox machine he'd bought for his suite.

But incredibly, that year was also a creative peak for Bowie. Remember it or not, he made one of his best albums, Station to Station, and made his debut as a leading man in Nicolas Roeg's science-fiction freakout The Man Who Fell to Earth

Station to Station and The Man Who Fell to Earth are intimately related. The Thin White Duke character that Bowie inhabits on Station to Station is basically just Bowie himself, at his most disconnected from reality. The same can be said of Bowie's performance as Thomas Newman, the extraterrestrial in The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Nic Roeg recalled in his memoir: "I really came to believe that Bowie was a man who had come to Earth from another galaxy ... he hardly mixed with anyone at all ... David Bowie is Thomas Newman."

It may not be Bowie's most memorable film role — we'll get to that — but it's probably his best.

Interlude

Not to spoil anything specific, but the ending of The Man Who Fell to Earth is fantastically bleak. We'll need to pick up the mood a bit before we get to our second feature. So, let's continue our trip through Bowie's career with that in mind. Up next, the video for "'Heroes'":

Recorded while Bowie was detoxing in West Berlin, "'Heroes'" is pained and semi-ironic: the song title actually has quotation marks around it on the record sleeve. But there's more than a glimmer of hope in it, and it's become one of Bowie's great anthems.

Bowie looks a tad awkward in this video, and his lip-syncing is far from on point. But the image of him lit triumphantly from behind gives a clear message: "Things were touch-and-go, there, for a while. But I'm back."

And the good vibes keep on coming, as we finish our brief interlude with the massive MTV hit, "Let's Dance":

In 1983, Bowie was trying to sell himself as a new artist, one without the artifice or contrivance of his previous selves. A man without masks

Certainly, "Let's Dance" is aggressively normal compared to some of what came before. But then, take a look at this video. It's a straightforward anti-racism narrative expressing solidarity with the Aborigines of Australia. Which is fantastic, but the narrative is set to a song that is one of Bowie's least overtly political musical statements. The juxtaposition is jarring in a way with which only Bowie would be comfortable.

The '80s are a controversial period among Bowie fans. But I've always thought that the people who hate this song are just actively denying themselves joy. And speaking of joy...

Second feature: Labyrinth

Bowie meant something different to everybody. Some will remember him as Ziggy Stardust, pansexual revolutionary. For others, he'll be the guy who added the phrase "Ground control to Major Tom" to the vernacular. But there's another group of people — not mutually exclusive from those other groups — for whom David Bowie will always be Jareth, the Goblin King:

Jim Henson's Labyrinth is as bonkers in its own way as Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth. It is probably one of the more disquieting pieces of classic children's entertainment. But that's also probably why it's so much fun. Like everything else Bowie did, it feels subversive somehow.

The iconic "Magic Dance" scene alone ought to demonstrate that Bowie was never in more suitable company than with a bunch of Muppets. He was in high spirits throughout production, and apparently spent the time between shoots entertaining little Toby Froud (the baby in the above clip) with puppet shows of his own.

He imprinted himself onto Froud's childhood, and also everybody else's since the '80s.

Postlude

We'll wind down the evening with two more essential music videos. First, Bowie's final statement in a visual medium: the "Lazarus" video:

This music video, released days before he died, is the most self-explanatory thing Bowie has ever done in his career. It is brilliant and moving and essential to any David Bowie memorial, but it is not a note to end on. Bowie's looking energized and singing about freedom, but he's still lying in a hospital bed.

No, this won't do. Let's jump back to the beginning again. Here's a video that was shot post-"Starman," but the audio comes from a younger Bowie than we've seen thus far — a 24-year-old Bowie who has just written one of the greatest songs ever:

"Life On Mars?" is the only way to finish off the evening, because it is the most satisfying catharsis that Bowie ever gave us. It's a song about things being bad, and craving escape or release. In this case, release comes in the form of a full octave leap up to a high B-flat. 

And then David Bowie, whose edges were always a little indistinct, fades to white.

Sources:

Bowie by Wendy Leigh 
The World is Ever Changing
 by Nicolas Roeg