David Bowie died on January 10, 2016 just days after releasing his final album. His final music video for the song ‘Lazarus’ seems especially poignant and designed as a farewell to fans. But the title also suggests a rebirth and rising from the grave. Well, we can only hope. And if anyone could figure out a way to return, it’s Bowie. He’s never seemed quite of this world. He played that up when he created his alter ego of Ziggy Stardust, a glittery, bisexual space alien who came to Earth to save it and became a rock star along the way. His talent certainly seemed otherworldly or at least beyond the scope of mere ordinary humans. He was unique and utterly riveting in whatever he did. Here are his ten best movie roles that reveal what an exceptional acting talent he was. With performances like these captured on film, Bowie will never really be dead.
10 Best David Bowie Films
1. The Man Who Fell to Earth as Thomas Jerome Newton (1976)
Bowie’s first feature film is his best. Director Nicolas Roeg cleverly cast Bowie (who had just three years earlier “retired” his extraterrestrial alter ego Ziggy Stardust) as a humanoid alien who arrives on Earth to find water for his dying planet. He starts a high tech company, makes billions, and then gets derailed by human greed and corporate ruthlessness. Bowie is perfectly cast as an innocent; a stranger in a strange land who tries to fit in but never can. It’s a stunning debut performance.
2. Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence as Major Jack ‘Strafer’ Celliers (1983)
Roeg played up Bowie’s other worldliness but Japanese director Nagisa Ôshima exploited his charisma. The film focuses on a Japanese prisoner of war camp where a defiant British Jack Celliers faces off against camp commander Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto). Both Bowie and Sakamoto were rock icons in their respective countries so they brought with them a built in star quality that perfectly suited their roles. The film allowed Bowie to display his subtler acting skills in this emotionally complex and very human drama.
3. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973)
D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary cleverly captures Bowie as his glam rock alter ego Ziggy Stardust. It reveals in part how Bowie changed the music landscape and turned a concert tour into something more akin to performance art. An unflashy documentary about one of the flashiest performers ever.
4. The Hunger as John Blaylock (1983)
Tony Scott’s feature directing debut is all about gorgeous style and that’s reflected in his cast of Bowie, Catherine Deneuve, and Susan Sarandon. These are faces and bodies that the camera caresses and adores. Deneuve plays Miriam Blaylock, a vampire who takes a lover every few hundred years. But unlike her, her lovers eventually age but don’t die. Bowie plays her latest lover/victim and we get to see his beauty fade into Dick Smith’s amazing prosthetic make up effects.
5. Labyrinth as Jareth the Goblin King (1986)
Jim Henson’s fantasy film has a devout cult following and I include it this high up less for its artistic merits than for its enduring popularity with fans. Bowie plays the Goblin King and Jennifer Connelly is a pouty teen that must solve a labyrinth to rescue her baby brother stolen by him. Some delightful Henson puppetry intermixed with some painfully bad narrative stretches. But Bowie does get to sing and that’s always a pleasure.
6. The Prestige as Nikola Tesla (2006)
Christopher Nolan’s sleight of hand tale involves a rivalry between stage magicians. One of them seeks out Nikola Tesla in order to come up with an illusion to trump the other. Bowie’s entrance late in the film as Tesla is fittingly grand. Once again, a director understands that Bowie brings with him a presence that can immediately define a character that is only onscreen for a few minutes. Casting Bowie as the enigmatic real life inventor allows Nolan to use cinematic shorthand to convey the weight and importance of this character in his story.
7. Basquiat as Andy Warhol (1996)
You could call this stunt casting with one pop icon playing another, but it’s stunt casting that works. Bowie captures the quirky essence of Andy Warhol in this biopic about another artist Jean Michel Basquiat. Bowie seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself in the role and his scenes are the most enjoyable in the film.
8. The Last Temptation of Christ as Pontius Pilate (1988)
Martin Scorsese goes against type to cast Bowie as the Roman governor who wanted nothing more than to wash his hands of all responsibility for the fate of Jesus of Nazareth. Again a small role made big by Bowie. Always the rebel in his own art, it’s interesting to see him play a man who’s part of the establishment. Bowie reveals that his skill as an actor allowed him to play anything. It’s also a character that understands he needs to play a role in the political arena for the Romans.
9. Absolute Beginners as Vendice Partners (1986)
Although Bowie’s music enhances many film soundtracks, it’s rare that he actually appears in a film (not a documentary) where he’s allowed to sing. This is a delicious exception. This highly stylized musical failed to stir much interest at the box office but it allows Bowie a show stopping number as an ad man. Bowie gets to sing a number called ‘That’s Motivation’ and dance atop a giant typewriter. It’s an over the top homage to the MGM musicals of the forties and fifties, and Bowie dazzles us.
10. B.U.S.T.E.D. as Bernie (1999)
For the last spot there were a few films in the running, Zoolander for a silly cameo and Just a Gigolo because he looked so damn good. But I decided to go with B.U.S.T.E.D. because it shows off his diversity. This androgynous rock star proves he can gracefully age and even play a gangster. A nice change of pace role.
Bowie on stage: The Elephant Man as John Merrick (1980)
Search YouTube for some clips of his performance on Broadway, not surprisingly, he took well to the role of the deformed and socially outcast John Merrick.
Bowie in video game: Omikron: The Nomad Soul (1999)
Omikron: The Nomad Soul is an adventure game (developed by Quantic Dream) in which Bowie contributed to the storyline, appeared as a pair of characters, and performed music.
Bowie on TV: Extras (2006)
This is a better cameo as himself than in Zoolander plus he gets to sing and humiliate Ricky Gervais.
Bowie music video: ‘Lazarus’ (2016)
His final music video begins with the lyrics, “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen. I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen. Everybody knows me now. Look up here, man, I’m in danger. I’ve got nothing left to lose.” And it ends with him backing into a closet. Is a rebirth ahead or was this just his way of saying goodbye? Either way it’s brilliant.