A Brief Guide to David Bowie’s Biggest Cinematic Inspirations
David Bowie was many things: a singer, a lyricist, a painter, a designer, a philosopher, a performer, an actor… a true Renaissance man. He was an artist by all meanings of the word. And like many artists, he drew inspiration from other works, making his auteur creations more postmodern in nature. We’re, of course, aware of his fondness for the likes of Andy Warhol and Lou Reed, or Little Richard and Aretha Franklin, but not many know that Bowie’s greatest inspiration was nothing more than his local cinema.
In one of his most popular songs, Life on Mars?, Bowie sings about a protagonist who is entering a cinema, looking for the “seat with the clearest view” to stare up at the silver screen. But, like most of her life, “the film is a saddening bore; for she’s lived it ten times or more,” remarking on the relationship between art and life. As she watches the movie, she asks herself: do we consume art to replace living? A reflection had by not just the song’s protagonist, but by Bowie himself, reflecting on his own bond with the silver screen.
Throughout Bowie’s entire portfolio, we can find references like this to the cinema. Of course, there are more obvious connections between Bowie and the screen: he starred in many films throughout his career, as well as playing smaller roles on TV, and he created short films posing as music videos, telling stories both through his lyrics and visuals. But it’s often overlooked just how influential the cinema was on all aspects of Bowie’s art, for we wouldn’t have Life on Mars?, Space Oddity, Lazarus, Absolute Beginners or Rebel, Rebel if Bowie didn’t have films.
It’s almost impossible to reference every cinematic influence Bowie had – everything he made was based on something he consumed, so anything he touched was inevitably inspired by another artist’s work. But here are four, along with some honourable mentions, of the films that helped to create some of his most iconic work.
2001: A Space Odyssey
In January of 1969, David Bowie sat down in a London cinema, slightly stoned, to watch, what would become, one of cinema’s most influential films. At the time, he was a 22-year struggling artist, trying to make a career out of songs, bands and performances that persistently failed. After seeing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Bowie went on to write his first chart-topping hit, “Space Oddity,” which would become the official anthem for the BBC’s broadcast of the 1969 moon landing, with the song beamed into households all across Britain. And although Space Oddity was a one-hit-wonder for the still unknown Bowie (who’s next album, The Man Who Sold the World (1970), would continue his streak of flopping in the charts), the song and its original music video (filmed like the 1960s version of a low-budget fan remake, but would become one of the very first music videos as we know them today) started the trend of associating Bowie with a starman.
Yet, 2001 wasn’t the only film of Kubrick’s that sparked inspiration in the singer. The punk dystopian design of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), particularly the fashionable stylings of Alex and his droogs, would serve as the inspiration for Ziggy Stardust and his Spiders from Mars. You can see design references to A Clockwork Orange in the album of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust (1972), as well as in the early costuming for the character (before his migration into Japanese fashion).
Bowie flirted with German expressionism for much of the mid-70s. After leaving Ziggy behind, Bowie transitioned into more exaggerated stage productions, interested in turning the rock concert into a theatrical performance. To do this, Bowie created an elaborate set for his next tour promoting his latest album Diamond Dogs (1974), making it one of the most expensive rock tours at the time. The set was designed to mimic the gothic, oppressive sets seen in expressionist films, like The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari (Wiene 1920) and Nosferatu (Murnau) 1922), with Bowie referencing Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) as the main inspiration for both the tour and the album’s design, adding elements from the film’s art deco template to his stage show.
At this same time, Bowie was working on directing his own film. The film, based on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), was initially meant to be a rock musical of the famous novel, but, when Orwell’s estate refused Bowie the rights to make the musical, he instead turned the concept into the Diamond Dogs album and what-would-be film. The film, which was set in the fictional town of Hunger City, would feature Bowie’s character of Halloween Jack, the leader of a gang of youths, living in a desolate dystopian city – think A Clockwork Orange themes meet Metropolis design. The film would have been the musician’s first (and only) venture into feature film directing, with him, presumably, casting himself in the lead role. Unfortunately, the film never materialised and Hunger City was only the backdrop to his rock concert turned stage show.
The Man Who Fell to Earth
Despite trying for years to become a professional actor, Bowie was cast in his first feature film after director Nicolas Roeg watched him on the BBC documentary Cracked Actor (Yentob 1975), which tracked Bowie during his time in America – and in the midst of his cocaine addiction. Roeg, so taken aback by Bowie’s bizarre philosophical alienness, designed the visual aesthetics of the film and the character of Thomas Newton after him, telling Bowie to “just be yourself” when playing the character. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) was a pivotal moment for Bowie, as it bolstered his acting career (he would go on to star in various films and tv shows and even appear on Broadway) and reinforced his alien otherness for audiences, which, of course, would come to be the star’s most profitable brand. But on a personal level, his work on the production and the story itself would remain with Bowie for the rest of career. References to The Man Who Fell to Earth repeatedly appear in his work, such as film stills on the cover of Station to Station (1976) and Low (1977) (songs from which were originally written to score the film) and the incorporation of Newton’s tailored dress and sophisticated demure into his next character, The Thin White Duke.
But it’s Bowie’s penultimate project, the musical Lazarus (2015), that solidifies Roeg’s film as a primary inspiration for Bowie. Forty years after the release of The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie premiered his stage play: a musical starring the character Thomas Newton many years after the events of the film, still trapped on Earth, still longing to return home. There have been many questions asked as to why Bowie decided to return to Newton when his catalogue of characters is exponential. And, if we read the play as a metaphor for Bowie’s impending death from liver cancer and him reflecting on leaving his Earthly body to return to the stars, what does it say that he chose this character to say his final goodbye? Unfortunately, only David himself knows the answer to that one.
Un Chien Andalou
After filming The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie embarked on the formation of his most controversial identity: the Thin White Duke. Inspired by numerous movements and ideologies from Europe during the turn of the 20th century, such as dadaism, occultism and fascism, the Duke basked this era of Bowie’s career in radical darkness that came to metaphorically and politically represent the underworld of European society. But Bowie’s infamous character is mostly remembered for the time the star – whether in character or simply just on too much cocaine – supported Nazism and said Hilter was “one of the first pop stars.”
The Duke, as already mentioned, is inherently linked to Thomas Newton, with Bowie basing the character’s simplistic style and clean appearance on the millionaire alien. But, unlike Newton, the Duke belongs on Earth, grounded in a haze of surreal realism. As a continuation of the Diamond Dogs era, Bowie looked towards German expressionism, particularly the Weimar era of filmmaking, to craft the Duke’s stage image, mixing the stark, high contrast lighting of films like The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari with surrealist imagery popular with the art world. The Isolar tour opened without an introduction, only a screening of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), disorienting the audience with unsettling imagery, before Bowie as the Duke appeared on a black stage, lit with nothing but a single spotlight. This dark, cold design came to define the Duke’s legacy, associating the character’s darkness with that which was bubbling across Germany before the Second World War.
Film was a constant inspiration for Bowie, and it served as the starting and ending point for many of his most famous creations. So next time you’re listening to Ashes to Ashes or Cat People or watching any of his music videos or even just exploring his non-music related art, have a closer look to see where the cinema comes in to play.