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BOWIE, DAVID
(David Jones 1947–2016). British musician and actor.

IMDB credits I am surely expressing (yet again) a minority opinion, but I think the world would have been well served if David Bowie, in the manner of other musicians like Mark WAHLBERG and ICE-T, had abandoned his musical career in the 1970s to focus exclusively on acting. For, as was apparent ever since his first starring role in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Bowie was a natural actor. Contemplating his music, however, I discern an intelligent young man who very badly wanted to make himself into a rock star and gradually figured out how to do it, all the while lacking any inborn flair or instinct for writing songs or playing instruments. His much-praised drive to be constantly innovative only strikes me as a sign of his basic insecurity in the milieu of popular music, and his creative lurches hither and yon, while resulting in some celebrated hits (like "Fame" [1975] and his collaboration with Queen, "Under Pressure" [1981]), were just as likely to yield usually overlooked misses (like the output of Tin Machine).

But I am writing a Biographical Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Film, not a Biographical Encyclopedia of Rock Music, and I will henceforth focus on the task I am better qualified for, evaluating Bowie's contributions to science fiction film. Of course, Bowie first exploited science fiction in his early days as a musician and performer, most notably in adopting the persona of alien rock'n'roller  Ziggy Stardust, and one could argue that his first science fiction film was a documentary of one Ziggy Stardust concert, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973). But his official acting debut in The Man Who Fell to Earth, playing an alien visiting Earth to obtain assistance for his dying planet, established that Bowie was a brilliant actor, and it remains both his best role and one of the two performances in science fiction film (the other by the unlikely Joanna FRANK) that most effectively contrives to convey a genuinely alien presence.

After The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie mostly concentrated on realistic films for a while, though he was effective as a dying vampire in The Hunger (1983) and did an uncredited cameo as a shark in the farcical Yellowbeard (1983).  The turning point in his career, I believe, came when he agreed to star in Jim HENSON's puppet-filled fantasy Labyrinth (1986). At the time, it must have seemed like a good idea, an opportunity to combine his interests in acting and music with a musical role, but even with his talents, Bowie could not overcome the burden of a script that provided absolutely no clue as to who this villainous Goblin King really was or why he was so dedicated to kidnapping little children. Some commentators now, and oddly, have identified Labyrinth as a "cult classic," but in its day, the film was considered both a financial and artistic failure, and as a consequence, Bowie apparently resolved to henceforth focus his energies on music and restrict his acting to supporting roles.

What seemingly happened is that people producing strange films would seek out Bowie to add an extra touch of strangeness to the proceedings. Thus, among other roles, Bowie seemed surprisingly perfect as Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), fit right into the surreal world of Twin Peaks in the films Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) and the later compilation Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces (2014), and stood out as Nicolas Tesla in The Prestige (2006), making a dramatic entrance through a curtain of electricity. He also co-hosted a horror series, The Hunger (1999-2000), contributed his voice to the animated film Arthur and the Invisibles (2006) and "Atlantis SquarePantis" (2007), an episode of Spongebob Squarepants, and appeared as himself in the film Zoolander (2001) and elsewhere.

However much one might admire his acting skills, however, Bowie may ultimately achieve screen immortality primarily because of his music—particularly his early, spaced-out songs—which seemingly remain irresistible soundtrack choices for the makers of science fiction and fantasy films. Just between 2013 and 2017, for example, his songs were heard in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), The Martian (2015), and Kong: Skull Island (2017).  Further, even the more standard Bowie songs habitually chosen, like "Changes" (1972) and "Rebel, Rebel" (1974), were all released before The Man Who Fell to Earth—suggesting that, from the perspective of film producers, Bowie had completed all of his significant music by 1976 and thus, arguably confirming my argument, he then should have quit while he was ahead and instead devoted himself exclusively to screen acting.

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