As we dig back into late musician David Bowie's vast body of albums and singles, we should also remember that he had an on-again-off-again affair with the movies. That should come as no surprise: his music was often described as “theatrical,” and his tours were often lavish. Against bold sets — most garishly the giant spider on the 1987 “Glass Spider Tour” — he’d do more than sing and dance. He’d perform, as though acting out each and every song.
Most of Bowie’s movie performances, though, weren’t over-the-top. They were subtle, introspective, almost minimalist. It was as though he was trying to see how little he could do onscreen. Even as Jareth, the “goblin king” in “Labyrinth,” he didn’t ham it up. He was a figure of elegance, who just happened to be surrounded by silly Jim Henson puppets.
Bowie studied avant-garde theater and mime in the 1960s, as his music career was just starting, and he even co-starred in the 1969 experimental short film “The Image.” But he didn’t make his proper, splashy film acting debut till 1976’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” It was a perfect fit, not just because he played an alien, but because, like him, it was trying to do something daring and new with a popular medium.
Its director, Nicolas Roeg, made films that played restlessly with editing tricks, including “Performance” (with Bowie’s friend Mick Jagger) and the horror film “Don’t Look Now.” Here, Roeg got viewers into the mindset of Bowie’s Jerome, who has come to Earth hoping to find a cure for his desolate planet. Instead he gets caught up in life here, and the film barrels through the decades as everyone but him ages. He’s stuck being 1976 Bowie, depressed, helpless and self-pitying.