Sound and vision

The film soundtrack legacy of David Bowie.

by Jennie Kermode and Max Crawford

Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars

Since the death of David Bowie earlier this week, tributes have poured in from all around the world. People remember him as a musician; as an icon who stretched the boundaries of gender; and, of course, as an actor. But whilst we remember his fantastic performances in the likes of Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and The Man Who Fell To Earth, there’s a risk that we overlook the enormous contribution that he made to the film industry through his music. With over 400 soundtrack contributions across his career, he was one of the most prolific contributors the industry has ever known.

Bowie’s music first began to be used in films at the end of the Sixties and 1973 saw the release of the celebrated concert film Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, but is wasn’t until 1981 that he first provided the soundtrack for a whole film. This was Uli Edel’s Christiane F, a portrait of Berlin’s drug scene in the Seventies, and Bowie also appears in the film in concert footage, which was recorded in New York but designed to look like part of the Berlin music scene which he had recently been a part of. The following year saw him write a song specially for a film for the first time, providing the title track for Paul Schraeder’s cult fantasy horror film Cat People, which starred Nastassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell. Although neither film was a major hit in its time, they cemented his reputation as somebody just as interested in outsider art and pushing boundaries in film as he was in music.

In 1983, Bowie appeared opposite Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger and contributed Funtime to the soundtrack, but it would be another three years before he would write material specifically for a film he was starring in. Absolute Beginners, which had been billed as a modern revival of the musical, sadly failed to live up to fans’ hopes, but Bowie had simultaneously been working on another film which would prove to have much more lasting influence. He was persuaded to join the cast of Labyrinth after Jim Henson wrote a personal note telling him he thought he would be wonderful in it. As he happened to have a number of half-written songs which he’d been unsure what to do with, he adapted them to create the film’s soundtrack. The result was something quite at odds with the more serious image he had recently been cultivating, but its appeal went well beyond the young audience it had been intended for, and it is perhaps the most widely viewed of all his films, with enduring cult appeal.

After a distinctive contribution to The Night Is Young (Mauvais Sang) and a less successful contribution to Cool World (which featured strong work by Brian Eno, Ministry and My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult), Bowie largely withdrew from direct creative involvement in film soundtracks, but his work continued to be selected for films and, in some cases, was very important to setting their tone. The Hearts Filthy Lesson made for a powerful introduction to David Fincher’s Se7en and provided comment on its themes about the artistic process and the abuse of artistic ideas, while Trent Reznor’s remixed version helped establish Reznor as an important film composer in his turn – one who would go on to become an Oscar winner. Lost Highway, meanwhile, established Bowie’s Outside album as the go-to place for strong songs with otherworldly undertones. Its director David Lynch had worked with Bowie two years earlier on Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and the two remained friends, with further material featuring Bowie appearing in the Twin Peaks 25th anniversary blu-ray box set released last year.

Bowie’s Heroes, a song written about two of his friends sneaking off for a snog, in perhaps the most frequently misinterpreted song in history, and has been used accordingly in films from Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla (which arguably misunderstood its scaly hero to a similar degree) to Antitrust. Young Americans has also been used very clumsily by people who don’t seem to have got past the title, but it’s also enjoyed starring moments, fitting perfectly in 1984 Bratpack hit Sixteen Candles and providing a real emotional punch over the bleak final credit sequence in Lars Von Trier’s 2003 opus Dogville.

Other Bowie contributions worth looking out for include I Have Not Been To Oxford Town in Starship Troopers (which is performed by Zoë Poledouris, daughter of the film’s legendary composer, Basil); the remixed Bring Me The Disco King in Underworld; and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou’s collection of fan favourites sung in Portuguese. Then there’s Moonage Daydream in Guardians Of The Galaxy, which won Bowie a whole new generation of fans. The last film to feature his work whilst he was alive was Ridley Scott’s The Martian, with Starman.

There will be a special anniversary screening of The Man Who Fell To Earth at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival.

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