“We’ve got five years, what a surprise / Five years, stuck on my eyes / We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot / Five years, that’s all we’ve got.”
It’s already been five years since David Bowie’s untimely death, and it still hurts. The stage icon was no stranger to the big screen, leaving a rich and strange filmography to mark his boundless influence on popular culture. Always a film fan, Bowie was heavily inspired by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou (passages of which were screened during his Station To Station tour in 1976) and borrowed from German expressionist films for the design of his shows. From his first credited turn in the 1969 short film The Boy to his final cameo in 2009’s Bandslam (if you don’t count the archive footage used in 2017’s series Twin Peaks: The Return), his chameleonic approach to art was mirrored in his creative output as an actor.
Here are our top picks of Bowie’s finest cinematic performances, discounting his role as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ, where he was, let’s face facts, as wooden as the cross…
Of course, this had to be first. Muppets creator Jim Henson, Monty Python’s Terry Jones and Star Wars head honcho George Lucas joined forces in the 1980s to create an epic musical fantasy based on the mythological labyrinth and featuring some top-notch puppetry. But most people remember Labyrinth for Bowie’s fantastic, creepy and ever-so-slightly sexual (don’t you deny you felt a twinge down there when he speaks the line “Just fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave”) turn as pantomime villain Jareth The Goblin King, who kidnaps a baby and demands that his teenage sister Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) brave his mind-bending maze in order to save him.
The film didn’t get much love when it was released but went on to garner praise and cult status, as both a brilliantly crafted family adventure film and a sexual-awakening fantasy. And for those keen to revisit (or discover) Labyrinth, keep your eyes peeled for a cheeky little detail repeatedly peppered throughout the film – Bowie’s face is sneakily hidden throughout the actual labyrinth, etched into the rocks and shrubbery, to make sure that you’re never forgetting who’s in charge here: a gloriously permed glam-rock icon with a penchant for juggling crystal balls. (Pipe down at the back.)
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Based on Walter Tevis’ novel and released the year Bowie moved to Berlin, director Nicolas Roeg’s allegorical sci-fi gem is a close second for Bowie’s most memorable signature big-screen turn. For his first major starring role, The Man Who Fell To Earth saw the Starman actually playing an alienated extra-terrestrial, one who crash lands on Earth in order to find water and ship it to his home planet. After Jareth, Thomas Jerome Newton is the role he was born to play.
It was hardly a stretch for Bowie, who always seemed otherworldly, a man out of time on Earth who knew more than us mere mortals. Nevertheless, his performance is absorbing and brings home the allegory about losing one’s innocence to the trappings of capitalism. It also featured a certain amount of intertextuality, as the role echoes Bowie’s musical personas of Major Tom and Ziggy Stardust, characters which fed the medium-spanning impact of his myth.
The Hunger (1983)
Released the same year as the Bowie-starring Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, The Hunger sees the Thin White Duke playing a 200-year-old vampire, John. He unwittingly lures Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), a young doctor specialising in sleep and ageing research, into his married life with the predatory Miriam (Catherine Deneuve), creating a bloody love triangle for the ages. The Hunger is a fantastic drama featuring a trio of great performances and some memorable special effects courtesy of The Exorcist make-up artist Dick Smith.
Much like in The Man Who Fell To Earth, Bowie brings a certain otherworldliness to the role – which was clearly an inspiration for Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. Much like Tom Hiddleston’s Adam, Bowie makes you feel like the angst-ridden character has been on Earth for too long. In addition, watch out for a brief appearance by Willem Dafoe, as well as English goth-rockers Bauhaus, who appear in the opening credits, playing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” as Bowie prowls a nightclub.
Just a Gigolo (1978)
Dropped smack bang in the middle of Bowie’s Berlin years, Just A Gigolo is an overlooked entry in his filmography. Set in between-the-wars Berlin, David Hemmings directs Bowie as the fantastically-named Paul Ambrosius von Przygodski, a Prussian soldier who finds work as a high-class prostitute in a German brothel run by the Baroness (Marlene Dietrich, in her final film role).
There’s a reason Just A Gigolo is overlooked: it’s not that great and without a doubt the weakest on this non-exhaustive list. It was panned by critics and audiences at the time, leading Bowie to quip that it was “my 32 Elvis Presley movies rolled into one”. Regardless, the film makes the cut because it showcases Bowie’s magnetism as a performer: he infuses the rest of the movie with the charisma and charm that made his live shows so damn exciting.
The Prestige (2006)
This magician-vs-magician period thriller is one of Christopher Nolan’s most underappreciated films, standing as arguably his best picture to date. For his adaptation of Christopher Priest’s novel, Nolan made a canny casting choice for the narratively pivotal role of real-life figure Nikola Tesla: get Bowie to play the famously idiosyncratic inventor. The unexpected moment when he emerges from a cloud of smoke and lightning is nothing short of electric, and during his limited screen time, Bowie imbues the role with an understated gravitas that makes you believe that he could cross the barrier between science and magic.
Nolan even confirmed that he cast the initially reticent artist precisely because he was looking for someone the audience “would instantly believe was capable of extraordinary things”. He went on to say that he didn’t want to cast any actor for the role of Tesla: “It felt like any movie star in that role would be distracting”. Too right, and for a movie about misdirection, this piece of casting was the most subtle of all.
Yes, we could have picked Bowie’s convincing turn as Andy Warhol in Basquiat, his short-but-mythologically-potent role in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the typewriting jig in Absolute Beginners or his famous Christiane F. appearance for this last entry… But it’s this out-of-bollock-nowhere cameo in Zoolander that pips all of them to the post, putting Bowie’s self-awareness and sense of humour on full display.
He plays the grand poohbah of catwalk modelling in Ben Stiller’s cult comedy, showing up in the middle of a runway-off to judge the match, whipping off his glasses before a freeze-frame with “David Bowie” flashing on the screen. The cameo is hilarious and celebrates how peerlessly iconic he was. And continues to be.
Bonus pick: Inglourious Basterds (2009)
“Bowie was never in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds,” we hear you cry. Full marks, but many of Bowie’s songs were used to great effect in film (from “I’m Deranged” in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, those end credits in Se7en to the tune of “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson”, to Seu Jorge’s Portuguese covers in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou) and this inspired needle-drop stands out.
His song “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” accompanies an extended shot where Mélanie Laurent’s character, Shosanna, prepares herself to finally taste revenge in her high-stakes burn-Nazis-burn mission. Perfectly timed and lyrically relevant considering Shosanna’s means of revenge (“I’ve been putting out fire with gasoline”), it’s a perfect Bowie moment… even if he doesn’t appear on screen.
There we have it. Make sure to check out our fiendish Bowie quiz, published earlier this week, to test your knowledge on the artist’s Berlin years.