It is well known that rock stars don’t always make good movie stars. The magnetism of a music performer on stage, no matter how theatrical he or she is, doesn’t always translate directly into the silver-screen. There are, however, exceptions to this rule. David Bowie has starred in countless movie productions and his performances have always been met with rave reviews. Last year Rolling Stone considered him the best musician turned actor and discovering his filmography is certainly an exciting journey to be made.
The Man Who Fell To Earth was David Bowie’s debut performance on the big screen. Fresh from the success of a series of conceptual glam-rock albums (Ziggy Stardust, Alladinsane and Diamond Dogs) Bowie, now a sensation in America and not just a british oddity, accepts to star in a 70’s experimental Sci-Fi rock n’ roll film in the character of Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who comes to earth on a mission to bring water for his dying planet. Thomas has a plan to succeed, using his unique technological knowledge, but doesn’t expect to fall into the trappings of modern living and capitalism that he meets on planet earth. The story (based on the book from the 60’s with the same name) is quite beautiful and unique, a sort of sci-fi allegory about the illusions of modern life (a specific scene where he compulsively watches a wall of different tv screens is a beautiful visual metaphor for that). Modern living ends up defeating the alien, who ends up a quasi-human, alone and trapped on planet earth without a way of returning home. He won’t grow old or die like the other humans around him, he’ll simply be forgotten and isolated forever. This is the great calamity of The Man Who Fell to Earth: for humans, the hurt ends at death. For Thomas, it may continue on indefinitely, perhaps forever.
There’s quite a parallel going on between Bowie’s life during that era and the life of his character Thomas, and director Nicolas Roeg has confessed that was the reason why he chose him to play this part. Both the star and the character were living uncomfortably in their own skin. At the time Bowie was one of the top performers in the world and fame was as addictive as his cocaine habit, with obvious marks on the way he presents himself in this movie. While you can easily appreciate his amazing alien-meets-James-Dean looks, the film ends up being also the portrait of a performing breaking down in his own fame. Short after it was shot, Bowie left the US and isolated himself in studios in Berlin and Switzerland to start working on his now famous Low/Heroes/Lodger trilogy records. Trailer below: