by Scott Marshall
Since the sad news of his death at the start of year, the immense cultural impact of David Bowie’s work has come sharply into focus again. All his big hits have been trotted out ad infinitum, but the strength of his back catalogue and the indelible impression he made on fashion and attitudes towards gender and sexuality have also rightly been celebrated.
One element of Bowie’s career that seemed to get often forgotten, however, was his presence on celluloid. Sure, a lot of people fondly remember Labyrinth and his marvellously campy turn as the Goblin King, but beyond that he amassed a deep and varied list of film credits, including work with cinematic titans such as Martin Scorsese, David Lynch and Christopher Nolan.
In celebration of it’s fortieth anniversary, Bowie’s very first big screen performance, The Man Who Fell to Earth, is being brought back to UK theatres, offering viewers another chance to catch Bowie at his brilliant best.
Originally released in 1976, The Man Who Fell to Earth came with a certain amount of cinematic pedigree, based on a novel by Walter Tevis, author of The Hustler and The Colour of Money, and directed by Nicolas Roeg, who had previously terrified Venetian tourists with Don’t Look Now and given Mick Jagger his big screen break in Performance.
Despite boasting these credentials, the film was received rather mutely upon it’s release, with many critics praising the pitch perfect casting of Bowie, but recoiling at it’s abstract delivery and pompous tone. Much like many other films levelled with similar criticism upon release, however, the film has gone on to garner significant cult status, and is now widely viewed as a misunderstood masterpiece.
The film sees Bowie star as Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien visitor to Earth searching for a way to transport water to his home planet in order to ensure it’s survival. He uses his advanced technological knowledge to create a a multi billion dollar corporation to fund his efforts, but during his journey becomes enthralled and corrupted by such human follies as love, violence, TV and alcohol.
Looking back at the film, it can be difficult to see this as anything other than a David Bowie piece, despite him being merely an actor within (contractual wrangles prevented him from working on the soundtrack as would be expected). The movie mimics Bowie’s own ideas as an artist, equally interested in mainstream entertainment and Americana as fine art and Japanese theatre, and the character of Newton fit perfectly with Bowie’s own experiences of touring America and living in Berlin, alien to his surroundings but determined to soak them in.
From the moment he saunters on to screen after crash landing in New Mexico (where else?), Bowie is a magnetic and off kilter screen presence, nailing both the alien mannerisms and the more human charm called for in scenes with his love interest, played here by Candy Clark, and Rip Torn’s unscrupulous business partner. Throughout the film Newton experiences the full range of emotions, and Bowie convincingly delivers each one in his own inimitable style.
Bowie’s performance, of course, would be nothing without the film built around it, and despite being visually stunning from start to finish, unfortunately many of the criticisms the film received upon release still ring true today. The pacing of the film is all over the place, with a taut first section whipping along at breakneck speed, before suddenly the handbrake is slammed on as the the film wallows in it’s indulgences for a while. By the third act it’s has lost all sense of tone, lurching from shocking body horror to overwrought melodrama and glossy softcore erotica, sometimes within the same scene.
There is the argument that this type of pacing and tone echoes Newton’s journey and his state of mind as the film progresses, but it doesn’t make for a particularly easy watch, despite being consistently visually striking, even in it’s more avant garde moments. This may well be the director’s intentions though, and it is easy to see why it has garnered a cult following, perfect as it is for a midnight screening.
Overall, Roeg’s film is a surreal, meandering, pandering, science fiction tale that meditates on the human condition and the impact consumerism has on it, and features an absolutely iconic performance from Bowie.