David Bowie in Film
Words by L.L.
David Bowie was never afraid to push the boundaries and take his music in completely new directions. This fearless approach to his art is why he has made us laugh, cry, dance, love and challenge our perceptions. His artistry is truly timeless and will forever live on.
Rather than add to the legacy of his music, we decided to pay tribute to the eclectic use and range of his music in film.
David Bowie died on the 10th of January 2016. When the news reached me this morning, the first Bowie song that came to my mourning mind was ‘Young Americans’. Not because of a personal relationship to it or a high regard towards it, but because Lars von Trier used it in his film Dogville. Bowie had been involved in film as an actor and even composed the soundtrack for Cat People (1982) in the 80s. Going through film scenes featuring his songs, I came to realise that his music had been part of a couple of truly memorable film moments. Here is a little list as a tribute to an artist that came to shape several generations and a number of important films and directors.
R.I.P. David Bowie.
SONG: 'YOUNG AMERICANS'
ALBUM: YOUNG AMERICANS
Director: Lars von trier
WHERE: Closing Credits
The saxophone intro to ‘Young Americans’ blasts here as a bit of a funky wake up call, after more than two hours on a spare theatre stage amidst a desolate society pushed into cold-blooded violence. Lars von Trier’s film, famously labelled as Brechtian, uses Bowie’s cheerful ‘plastic soul’ sound to end a film about human cruelty on an intentionally ironic note. This choice, however, caused a number of critics to accuse von Trier of anti-Americanism, because the soundtrack and credits were combined with photographs of poor American communities taken from a photography book by Jacob Holdt. The ambiguity of Bowie’s song itself dealing with black repression, Richard Nixon and the McCarthy era with black humour might already be proof of that. It is also not the first time von Trier featured Bowie’s music, which already appears in Breaking the Waves (1996). Although von Trier likes to keep the story universal, it is certainly not the only ironic punch across the Atlantic by the director, who also emphasised that it was inspired by an account of cannibalism in the history of America’s founding fathers. One may think of the scene and its creator as one likes, but using Bowie as a Brechtian coup is brilliantly effective and memorable in its provocation.
SONG: 'modern love'
ALBUM: Let's dance
FILM: Mauvais Sang/ Bad Blood
DIRECTOR: LEOs CARAX
WHERE: towards the end
‘Modern Love’, which did feature in a number of other films, is probably nowhere still as beautifully expressed in body and film as in Leos Carax's second feature film Mauvais Sang/Bad Blood. Alex (Denis Lavant) is in love with Anna (Juliette Binoche). Anna lives in her own world and is the girlfriend of Alex’s boss. This unrequited love story is full of obstacles and is exemplary of modern melancholy surrounding the impossibility of love. In this vein, Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’ is the perfect sound to Alex’s feelings of love expressed in the most iconic dance scene in cinema (enough so to be referenced in Billy Elliot). The drive of both the song and Denis Lavant’s physicality and dance are a brilliant symbol of the pain, freedom and joy of love in a modern age.
SONG: 'SPACE ODDITY'
ALBUM: SPACE ODDITY
DIRECTOR: JEAN-MARC VALLEE
In C.R.A.Z.Y., Bowie’s persona Ziggy Stardust is impersonated in a highly comical way, as the star lying in his teenage bed is harshly interrupted by his brother. Nonetheless, the scene suggests much more in the melancholic verses of ‘Space Oddity’ as Zac transforms his face with the iconic thunder strike while holding on to the crucifix necklace of his mother. He dreams of his cousin and her boyfriend where it only becomes clear later on that the desire applied uniquely on her boyfriend. Zac is coming to terms with his homosexuality in a deeply conservative and religious time and society. Here, 'Space Oddity' is a means to full self-expression and Bowie as Ziggy becomes a gateway to sexual emancipation.
SONG: 'i'm deranged' with brian eno
FILM: lost highway
DIRECTOR: david lynch
WHERE: Opening and End
Bowie’s experimental work with Brian Eno fit perfectly into the ‘deranged’ cinematic world of David Lynch. His music sets the tone for a surreal psycho-thriller that takes its audience on a psychological journey through the fears and desires of Fred. In the same way reality and fantasy are incompatible for Fred, so are the slightly dissonant layers of Bowie’s track. Together, they portray a fragmented reality. The director’s iconic driving shots over the American highways could not have a better accompaniment as the image and its sound convey the essence of a whole film.
FILM: Christiane F. – We Children from Bahnhof Zoo
DIRECTOR: ULRICH EDEL
David Bowie’s ‘Berlin Trilogy’, Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979), as well as 1976’s Station to Station, often regarded as a milestone in the transition to the trilogy, feature as musical leitmotifs in this German film about heroin addiction in 1970s Berlin. ‘Look Back in Anger’ is played on the dance floor right at the beginning when Christiane, the female protagonist goes out. Later, we encounter Bowie himself on stage performing ‘Station to Station’ when she visits his concert. After the concert, Christiane follows her crush Detlef and goes on to take heroin for the first time at the age of thirteen. The film was adapted from the biographical book on the real story of Christiane Felscherinow. Just before the young girl takes the drug for the first time the group of young friends run through an empty mall as the song ‘Heroes’ plays. The image suddenly takes on a different meaning, commenting on the young love between Christiane and Detlef and the melancholy of a whole generation of teenagers. Here, Bowie perfectly lends the spirit of 1970s Berlin to the film.
SONG: 'CAT PEOPLE (PUTTING OUT FIRE)'
ALBUM: CAT PEOPLE OST
FILM: INGLORIOUS BASTERDS
DIRECTOR: QUENTIN TARANTINO
WHERE: Chapter Five
'Cat People (Putting Out Fire)' was actually written for the film Cat People with legendary disco producer Giorgio Moroder in 1981, and it sounds exactly like that: an 80s film montage soundtrack. When the soft hi-hat and the deep sultry tones of Bowie’s voice appear as Cat People starts in Inglorious Basterds, it’s the perfect to build up to the most climactic scene of the film. A song that starts so moody and dark breaks into a fiery 80s disco beat and Tarantino is clearly using it in a way that pays homage to its original conception. It perfectly embodies the nature of most of Tarantino’s films, the pathos of tragedy and humour. As the song opens with a dark gothic undertone and breaks into a disco workout while the characters on screen set the motions into play to exact their revenge, Tarantino cuts it how it should be: a montage. What should be cheesy ends up as humorous and powerful and demonstrates how Bowie’s music continues to transcend the passing of time.
For more on the late, great David Bowie, head to Dig and Discover and check out his album Low.