David Bowie's extraordinary cinematic legacy, in 14 memorable clips

A tribute to one of the world's most cinematic musicians

David Bowie on the set of 'The Man Who Fell to Earth'
(Image credit: British Lion Film Corporation/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis)

As fans around the world attach well-deserved superlatives to the life and career of the late David Bowie, I'd like to add one more compliment: Of all the musicians I love, he was the most cinematic.

Many of Bowie's best-loved songs conjure up the power of the movies; "Space Oddity," for example, is so evocative in its combination of lyrical and musical storytelling that a focused listener is practically experiencing a short film.

You couldn't possibly summarize all of Bowie's contributions to art, and I won't try here. But there are some moments from Bowie's career I'd like to single out for special praise — an appreciation of just how diverse and far-ranging an impact Bowie had on culture as both an actor and a songwriter.

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This list will necessarily be personal; Bowie's 38 screen credits and 452 soundtrack credits ensure that no two fans will select the same highlights. These are 14 of mine, in chronological order.

1. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

The trailer for Nicolas Roeg's sci-fi fable is smart enough to sell its biggest asset upfront. "Nothing you have seen or heard about David Bowie will prepare you for the impact of his first performance," says the narrator. "This is another dimension of David Bowie: One of the few true originals of our time."

Despite its sizable cult following, not every aspect of The Man Who Fell to Earth has aged like fine wine — but Bowie's spare, otherwordly performance certainly has.

2. Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)

Here's a rarity: A David Bowie-starring film in which the primary musical contribution comes from his costar. As an actor, Bowie was often cast for his otherworldly strangeness, but his relatively grounded starring turn as a POW in a Japanese camp was some of the best work of his acting career, turning his innate magnetism into the pivot point by which the narrative turned.

3. Mauvais Sang (1986)

"I like the radio," says Denis Lavant right before the best scene in 1986's Mauvais Sang. "You just turn it on, and you get the very tune that was humming inside your head. You'll see. It's magic."

If you're looking for evidence of that magic, you can't do much better than the ensuing sequence, which sees Lavant sprinting down the street to the strains of Bowie's "Modern Love." It's a stunning demonstration of physicality — the outward, exuberant expression of deeply held emotions brought forth by the power of music. What can I say? I tear up every time I watch it.

4. Labyrinth (1986)

There's absolutely no way that a children's movie as unnerving as Labyrinth would get made today. Jim Henson's final film owes much of its power to Bowie, who contributed a number of songs and played the villainous Goblin King, complete with his now-legendary codpiece. Opposite 15-year-old Jennifer Connelly, Bowie's performance is startling in its overt sexuality, turning the central conflict of Labyrinth into a daring coming-of-age metaphor.

5. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Martin Scorsese's cinematic take on the last days of Jesus Christ was so controversial that discussion of the conversation around the film has basically eliminated conversation about it. If you're looking for a scene that shows Scorsese's thoughtful take on this difficult material, look no further than Jesus' tete-a-tete with Pontius Pilate. Bowie's cool, confident Pilate offers a canny inversion on the dynamics you might expect from the scene. In a room in which one of the men can turn water into wine, Pilate is the one who commands your attention.

6. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

Bowie's role in the oddball prequel-sequel to the beloved cult series is small but potent — a long-lost FBI agent who suddenly and briefly returns to deliver a cryptic, rambling warning before disappearing again. (A deleted scene, released for the first time on last year's "Complete Mystery" Blu-Ray set, makes his role marginally more comprehensible.)

This scene shouldn't work at all. Bowie's character, Philip Jeffries, has never been referenced in Twin Peaks before, and we have no idea what he's talking about — nor do we ever really learn. But in the midst of Twin Peaks' other mysteries, it's a genuine chiller, and Bowie gets much of the credit. Could any other actor have felt so instantly suited to Twin Peaks' warped milieu, as if he sprang out of David Lynch's head fully formed?

7. Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

The turning point in the cult classic Grosse Pointe Blank happens without a single word of dialogue being spoken. As the hitman protagonist sits at his high school reunion, holding a baby, the Bowie/Queen collaboration "Under Pressure" — already playing in the background — suddenly swells on the soundtrack. It's a song choice that doubles as epiphany: the sudden, intimate revelation that human life is worth protecting, as Bowie sings about the importance of loving and caring.

8. Omikron: The Nomad Soul (1999)

Here's a weird one. Bowie contributed several songs and extensive voiceover work to this Sega Dreamcast game, which has a plot so complicated that I barely understood it. (Head over to Wikipedia if you want to try to decipher it for yourself. I never managed it.)

But incoherent as Omikron might be, the game gets a huge boost from Bowie's eerie turn as a kind of electronic god, and you have to admire Bowie's willingness to throw himself into cutting-edge storytelling technology with so much verve.

9. Moulin Rouge! (2001)

Baz Luhrmann's adrenalized musical fable owes its power to the many songs both written and reimagined for its narrative, but its greatest debt is to Bowie. He covered eden ahbez's "Nature Boy" for the bestselling soundtrack; allowed Beck to cover his own "Diamond Dogs"; and permitted the use of "Heroes" in Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor's "Elephant Love Medley." It's McGregor's exuberant "We could be heroes!" that finally wins Kidman's courtesan over — an earnest, heartfelt, and stirring tribute to the real value of love.

10. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Wes Anderson's luminous dramedy uses the music of David Bowie as its backbone, with supporting player Seu Jorge contributing numerous Portuguese-language cover versions of Bowie classics, to warm appreciations from Bowie himself. But Bowie's original recordings also appear, with the swooning strains of "Life on Mars?" offering a window into the true emotions of Bill Murray's stoic title protagonist.

11. Extras (2006)

In the later decades of his career, David Bowie was always game to offer a winking riff on his own persona — perhaps mostly famously as a runway judge in Zoolander. But his funniest self-parodic cameo came in HBO's Extras. After a brief encounter with protagonist Andy (Ricky Gervais), Bowie spontaneously composes an incredibly catchy song at his expense. It would be cruel if Bowie wasn't so cheery — a man whose musical genius is so single-minded and all-encompassing that he barely even realizes he's written an entire song that happens to mock the man right in front of him.

12. The Prestige (2006)

Christopher Nolan's period sci-fi thriller about a pair of dueling magicians nailed a key supporting role when he convinced Bowie to come onboard as legendary inventor Nikola Tesla. It's a remarkably eerie performance that infuses the story with a new degree of unpredictability; as Bowie's take on the real-life figure tells Hugh Jackman's fictional protagonist that "nothing is impossible," it becomes clear that The Prestige is willing to take its previously earthbound story beyond the bounds of science and into the world of magic.

13. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to find the perfect way to recontextualize Bowie's "Putting Out Fire (Theme from Cat People)," which is infinitely more powerful than the goofy 80s thriller that originally inspired it. In an extended montage right before the big climax of the film, "Putting Out Fire" is somehow both campy and chilling — a perfect musical microcosm of Tarantino's daringly anachronistic World War II flick.

14. Frances Ha (2012)

Decades after Denis Lavant sprinted to "Modern Love" in Mauvais Sang, Greta Gerwig offered a modern riff in Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha, to different but similarly moving effect. In a city and an era in which earbud headphones are practically omnipresent, Frances isn't actually listening to the song; she's just running down the street, leaping and twirling to the music she hears in her head.

It's a beautiful tribute to the intensely personal reaction a single song can inspire. Today, as fans around the world mourn Bowie, the scene's message feels particularly poignant.

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