Movies have been kind to David Bowie. Where the tradition is for cinema to crush pop star hubris — just ask Madonna, Britney Spears and Mariah Carey — the one born David Jones has eked out a select but excellent filmic existence. He’s only had but a few leading roles — most notably 1976’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth” — but his CV teems with small and memorable supporting turns: a cucumber cool Pontius Pilate in “The Last Temptation of Christ,” a spot-on Andy Warhol in “Basquiat,” a movie-stealing Nikola Tesla in “The Prestige” and a deeply affecting performance as a dying vampire in the incoherent hot mess that is Tony Scott's “The Hunger.” (He’s also very good as a co-lead in Nagisa Oshima’s Japanese POW saga, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.”)
It’s too bad Bowie does not enjoy film acting; he’s admitted finding movie sets to be artistically fallow, consisting of so much waiting around that he finds himself uninspired. (He hasn’t acted since a small role in 2008’s “August.”)
But movies have also been great to his music. Yes, there are only about a thousand uses of “Under Pressure.” But others use him in creative ways. In honor of “The Next Day,” Bowie’s first album in over a decade — and his best in ages — here’s a smattering of Bowie’s aural contributions to cinema.
"Christiane F" (1981)
Christiane F (real name Vera Christine Felscherinow) achieved fame when her life as a teenage heroin addict in West Germany became the non-fiction bestseller “Christiane F — We Children of Bahnhof Zoo.” It then became a low-budget movie by Ulli Edel (“Last Exit to Brooklyn,” “The Baader Meinhof Complex”). A depressing film about teenage drug addiction might not have been a big draw, but it had an ace up its sleeve: David Bowie contributed songs and appeared as himself in gratuitous concert footage. Because the film was set in the late ‘70s, the music hails from his Berlin Era, and you get “Helden,” the German version of “Heroes.” Today the film is perhaps best known as a soundtrack in the David Bowie section of music stores.
"Cat People" (1982)
Paul Schrader’s remake of Val Lewton’s no-budget chiller about a woman who thinks she’ll turn into a killer panther when sexually aroused is heavy and awesomely insane. It saves its most poetically ridiculous moment for the very ending, which employs the slower, moodier version of Bowie’ “Cat People” — also used to great effect in “Inglourious Basterds” — over a freeze frame of a sad panther face. This holds for an entire verse before Schrader unpauses it for the song’s chorus, then freeze frames it again (!!). (Note to “Cat People” neophytes: This clip is the ending of the film and is, sort of, a spoiler. Although if you know nothing of the film the scene won’t spoil anything and will probably seem simply weird and inexplicable. Anyway, trust us: it’s a dark, messed-up ending.)
The movie where Bowie, made up to look like a leopard in big ‘80s hair, plays a puppet king who wishes to marry a 15 year old Jennifer Connelly. When she refuses, he does the next logical thing: kidnaps her baby brother and forces her to trawl through a puppet-laden maze. It’s also a part-time musical. Screenplay by Terry Jones!
"Boy Meets Girl" (1984)
Filmmaker Leos Carax is big again thanks to “Holy Motors,” but once upon a time he was the enfant terrible of French cinema, and one of the major practitioners of the music video-heavy “cinema du look.” He was a lot brainier than other “cinema du look” people, like Luc Besson, and he also had a big thing for David Bowie. In his feature debut, Carax went to some of Bowie’s earliest, back when he was an incorrigible unknown cranking out whimsical Anthony Newley-esque songs (like this one and this one). The result, a sequence set to the languid "When I Live My Dream," is a lovely, lyrical moment capturing (among other things) the pleasure of walking around Paris with Bowie booming in one’s ears.
"Mauvais Sang" (1986)
Carax reached for his Bowie stack again for his sophomore effort — an arty neo-noir in which philosophical crook Denis Lavant (the shape-shifting star of “Holy Motors”) is in love with moll Juliette Binoche. His passions manifest itself in a scene where, upon hearing Bowie’ “Modern Love” on the radio, he runs top speed down a deserted city street at night, the song booming at 11. It’s the most accurate portrayal of unbridled happiness caught on film and, like most moments of unbridled happiness, it’s much too short.
"Lost Highway" (1997)
Bowie’s 1995 album “Outside” is one of his better latter day works, and two of its songs were put to excellent use in two excellent movies. “Seven” got “Heart’s Filthy Lesson,” while David Lynch’s comeback film — after the disastrous, and unfairly maligned, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” which featured a bizarre cameo from Bowie — opened with the (literally) driving “I’m Deranged.”
Lars Von Trier’s twisted homage to “Our Town” aims to be an indictment of America, in which strangers are first welcomed and then exploited by a cruel society. To drive this point home, he ends the film with a montage of photos of American devastation and blight set to “Young Americans.” Von Trier did the same thing with the Nicole Kidman-less sequel, “Manderlay,” which concerned slavery and racism.
"The Runaways" (2010)
In which Dakota Fanning’s Cherie Currie first exhibits her rock star prowess by lip synching and gyrating to “Lady Grinning Soul” while decked out in “Aladdin Sane” gear. That doesn't sound amazing when typed out, but it is. (Note: Relevant section of the above clip doesn't begin in earnest till around the 2:30 mark.)
"The Perks of Being a Wallflower" (2012)
Once upon a time, children, when you heard a song and you didn’t know what it was, you might spend years, decades even, trying to hunt it down. Set in the distant past of the early-to-mid 1990s, this much liked YA picture handily depicts an era of irritating ignorance: our heroes hear Bowie’s “Heroes” — the Wallflowers cover, from the soundtrack to 1998’s “Godzilla,” had not yet emerged — are immediately blown away (because it’s Bowie’s “Heroes”), but don’t figure out what it is until much later in the movie. Good times.