The final track on the first side of David Bowie’s 1973 album Aladdin Sane (A Lad Insane, get it?) is a lesser known rocker called ‘Cracked Actor’; among hits such as ‘Drive-In Saturday’ and ‘The Jean Genie’, it is one of the album’s more unappreciated delights. The song tells the dark story of a fading Hollywood star and his sexual encounter with a prostitute: “I’ve come on a few years from my Hollywood highs”, Bowie sings with urgency. Of course, the various meanings of “crack” allow for multiple readings of the song to be made – the image of a psychological break sits beside images of drug addiction and (albeit quite crudely when considering the nature of the “crack”) sex. Not only does the image of the broken actor provide a means for Bowie to discuss the excesses and decadence that surrounds celebrity, it also becomes a template for some of the fears that would follow the man to his grave.
In the music video for his most recent (and, sadly it seems, final) single ‘Lazarus’, Bowie becomes the cracked actor himself in what resembles a nightmarish fever dream that could have been concocted by the minds of David Lynch and Salvador Dali. Much will be written on the implications of Bowie’s final record, Blackstar (stylised as ★), but as a blindfolded Bowie writhes in a hospital bed singing “Look up here I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen”, it’s quite clear that the man is at once utterly broken and terrifyingly in control. Always a man with many faces, the artist has cracked in a final performance that merges together life and art – of course he wouldn’t have it any other way – and the effect is as startling as it is spellbinding. There is dark humour to be found in his decision to leave behind such a haunting parting gift, however the song and its video are sublime.
There is another lyric of Bowie’s, no doubt more famous than ‘Cracked Actor’, that recalls his artistic investment in film. In ‘Life on Mars?’ – both one of the artist’s most famous and most cryptic songs – the star sings of a young girl’s attempts to make sense of a reality that is utterly transformed by the copious media that surrounds her:
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen
To the girl in question the silver screen offers a site of refuge from the world that she struggles to make sense of, as it does for us all. The Wizard of Oz-style escapism that film provides for Bowie’s young daydreamer foregrounds a romanticisation of film as a means of postponing reality; it is worth noting that the octave leap for the titular lyric of ‘Starman’, a Bowie number that owes much to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, perfectly mirrors the octave leap for ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ (seriously, sing the lyrics to ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ to the tune of ‘Starman’ and tell us if it doesn’t fit).
Just as The Wizard of Oz considers the meeting point between fantasy and reality, Bowie’s entire career has also been about negotiating that gap. In turn, he was a young singer-songwriter, then Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke, The Man Who Fell to Earth, the Goblin King, The Singer, The Outsider, and so forth. The theatricality of the man is undeniable; a man with many faces, constantly treading the line between fantasy and reality. If cracking something involves the breaking and separating of a whole into smaller parts then Bowie was always a cracked actor performing a variety of different roles.
If it’s not his best performances then Jareth the Goblin King is at least Bowie’s most famous performance, certainly to those aged around 25 and over. Produced by George Lucas, based upon a screenplay by Monty Python’s Terry Jones, and starring Jennifer Connelly beside Bowie, Jim Henson’s 1986 fantasy Labyrinth was nothing if not a singular thing; it would also go on to be the Muppet creator’s final film before his early death in 1990. While the film is now a cult hit, it took its time to find an audience. It was a critical and commercial flop on release, but the film has since attracted a large following of those with a taste for the fantastic and the deranged, while Bowie’s ‘Magic Dance’ number remains an absurd treat.
Better, perhaps, is Bowie’s performance as alien Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicholas Roeg’s brilliant sci-fi parable The Man Who Fell to Earth – a film which also provided the cover image for Bowie’s 1977 masterpiece Low. As with Jareth the Goblin King in Labyrinth, Bowie’s otherworldly, androgynous looks lend themselves to the role; The Man Who Fell to Earth is yet another cult classic and is an interesting companion piece to Jonathan Glazer’s recent masterpiece Under the Skin.
As seen in his final performance, the music video for ‘Lazarus’, Bowie was never afraid to merge art and life; this happened again earlier in his acting career in Uli Edel’s underground odyssey Christiane F (1981). The film takes in the drug-infused Berlin music scene as seen through the eyes of the film’s titular character, a 14 year old girl. It is at a Bowie gig in which Christiane first tries heroin; as she begins her descent Bowie performs ‘Station to Station’, arguably the essential track of Bowie’s drug-fuelled mid-70s period in which he was known as The Thin White Duke (the name itself a reference to the substances to which he owes that song).
Aside from these great roles Bowie has been a vampire in Tony Scott’s The Hunger, a POW in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, an FBI agent in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Andy Warhol in Basquiat, himself in Zoolander, and Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. On the terms of his music, Bowie is much too popular to be called a cult figure, but his film credits seem to tell a different story. Through a diverse selection of film roles, the artist’s versatility as a performer is once again evident.
Beside an acting career that has spanned four decades, Bowie’s relationship with film runs deeper; so vital are his songs to film that many key scenes in cinema cannot be separated from the man’s music. Lyrics from ‘Changes’ open John Hughes’ seminal teen comedy The Breakfast Club as an epigraph, ‘ Young Americans’ features in Sixteen Candles, ‘Golden Years’ makes an unexpected appearance as a dance number in A Knight’s Tale, ‘Heroes’ features in the ‘Elephant Love Medley’ in Baz Luhrmann’s pop-fuelled musical Moulin Rouge! and Stephen Chobsky’s underrated teen dramedy The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Greta Gerwig tears through the streets of New York to ‘Modern Love’ in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, while ‘I’m Deranged’ provides dripping menace for David Lynch’s Lost Highways.
Let us also not forget Seu Jorge’s beautiful covers of Bowie classics in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou that include a wonderful rendition of ‘Rock n’ Roll Suicide’. The list is endless. Perhaps one of the most famous uses of a Bowie track in recent years is in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The song ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’ was originally written for another film, Paul Schrader’s Cat People, a remake of Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 horror noir of the same name. Both films deal with a patriarchal fear of female sexuality, rendered through the image of a female predator. These themes are returned to in the character of Shoshanna as she prepares to execute her noble but self-lacerating plot to destroy her theatre in order to kill Hitler and company. “I can stare for a thousand years” sings Bowie as Shoshanna and Tarantino stare intently into the terrible face of her future and our past; who, might we ask, is better to accompany such a satisfying rewriting of history than the king of reinvention himself, David Bowie? The scene is without question one of the director’s best uses of music in any of his films.
Even if it was a little on-the-nose, it was fitting that Bowie’s ‘Starman’ featured on Ridley Scott’s latest space romp The Martian. It is fitting for a man so otherworldly and brilliant that he ends as he began among the stars. So diverse and eccentric is his character that it would be impossible to understand him as a whole, rather he is best understood in parts. He was an innovator, a magician of his age, an outsider, a cracked actor, and now Lazarus. Of course, Lazarus rose from the dead and, while we must doubt that even the great David Bowie will manage that trick, it seems that he has risen to the occasion in style; for as long as there is sound and vision Bowie will live on. He needn’t fear death; after all, he is the Starman.