The identity of Deep Throat, the whereabouts of Lord Lucan, the recipe for Findus Crispy Pancakes: no secret of the last hundred years has been more impressively guarded than the recording of David Bowie’s twenty-seventh album ‘The Next Day’. Announced out of the blue in January after a decade in the wilderness, the record is currently topping the UK charts and a cracking listen it is too (if a bit too long for its own good). Congratulations, Mr Bowie, on finally dislodging that lollipop from your face and getting back in the studio. It was a great feeling to be able to walk into a record shop and walk out with a brand new David Bowie album, but more than that this record ensures that if God forbid something should happen to his Daveness, then the last thing he ever does won’t be that bloody episode of ‘Extras’. In celebration of the return of the Thin White Duke (throwing darts in lovers’ eyes division) we ask a question more hotly debated than “Was he right to delete ‘Too Dizzy’ from the reissue of ‘Never Let Me Down’?” and that is: can David Bowie act?
ONE MAGICAL MOVEMENT FROM KETHER TO MALKUTH
1. THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)
It’s hard to imagine anyone else ever playing this part. Even though the film was adapted from a novel and development had begun long before Bowie was onboard, the whole thing could be a symbolic adaptation of the first phase of his musical career. And it also provides the cover image for the greatest record ever made. Director Nicolas Roeg wanted Bowie for his alien after seeing him in the documentary CRACKED ACTOR (1974), shot at a time when Bowie’s paranoia and substance abuse were kicking into overdrive. The imagery from Bowie’s songs is put on screen in Roeg’s film: a world brought to the brink of apocalypse, a starman waiting in the sky, a saviour torn to pieces by an adoring crowd, a man ultimately left marooned in space and time. Bowie’s performance is mesmerising throughout.
2. MERRY CHRISTMAS MR LAWRENCE (1983)
Directed by Dirk Malcolm favourite Nagisa Oshima, who sadly passed away earlier this year, LAWRENCE sees Bowie attempting a more serious adult role and largely pulling it off. Let’s not mention the flashback scenes where he’s supposed to be playing a 16 year old schoolboy, although it does help create an impression of his character as weirdly ageless. Interned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, Bowie’s Major Celliers becomes the object of obsession of the camp’s commandant (played by Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Ryuichi Sakamoto as if to mirror Bowie’s casting). Oshima’s triumph is in taking the most heteronormative of movie genres and subverting it completely. A wonderful film.
3. THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)
Around this time Bowie made brief cameos in Martin Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST and David Lynch’s TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (1991). Although suitably enigmatic, in his Twin Peaks cameo he tries to do that godawful American accent, so CHRIST makes it in here. Although only on screen for a few minutes, Bowie gives a fine, multilayered performance as Pontius Pilate. “Unfortunately for you, we don’t want things ch-ch-ch-changed.” Sorry.
4. THE PRESTIGE (2006)
Nikola Tesla was a fascinating character: a bona fide genius who largely invented the AC electrical supply system used around the world today and one of the most important figures in the birth of radio, he also spent much of the latter part of his life attempting to make contact with extraterrestrial life and building enormous ‘death ray’ directed-energy weapons that he claimed would put an end to all direct human involvement in war. His closest friends were the pigeons in Central Park and he died living in the New Yorker hotel on the brink of destitution having ploughed his fortune into outlandish electromagnetic experiments such as the giant wireless transmitter at Wardenclyffe. During the ‘War of the Currents’, Thomas Edison’s DC versus Westinghouse and Tesla’s AC, he became known as a great showman who would pass thousands of volts through his body and shoot sparks from his fingertips in front of astonished audiences in an attempt to demonstrate the safety of his system to the public. There were rumours that he was an exiled Balkan Prince roughing it in America, which by the time of his death had escalated into jokey claims that he was actually an exile from an advanced extraterrestrial civilisation. In the sixties and seventies a niche science fiction sub-genre that can only be described as “Tesla fanfic” took this idea and ran with it. Intriguingly, Marc Seifer’s biography ‘Wizard: the life and times of Nikola Tesla’ claims that Tesla was the inspiration for THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, although I’ve never managed to find any other mention of this online or anywhere else. Oh yeah, and Christopher Nolan begged Bowie to play him in Nolan’s adaptation of Christopher Priest’s novel THE PRESTIGE.
I OUGHT TO REPORT YOU TO THE GNOME OFFICE
5. ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS (1986)
There’s that American accent again. Julien Temple’s John Osborne-meets-Busby Berkeley rock musical is dreadful on almost every level, so in some ways it’s impressive that Bowie stands out as the worst of a bad lot. He gets to do a song, but his song isn’t as good as Sade’s. Or Patsy Kensit’s. Patsy Kensit’s. (His title song is good though obviously. Wuz, wuz, wah-oooo)