It was no surprise to see, amidst the outpouring of sympathy and praise following the recent death of David Bowie, that several London cinemas intended to honour the legendary artist by arranging screenings of his film work. Bowie never committed to film in the same way he did music, and his impact on the latter was undeniably more memorable. He will never be regarded as a 'great actor' and the argument that the roles he took simply involved him transmitting his preternatural charisma to the screen will never go away. But he did, over the course of his long career in the arts, turn in some interesting, provocative, and undeniably (certainly in the case of the Jim Henson 1986 puppet film Labyrinth) crowd-pleasing performances.
This weekend though it was to one of his more unconventional turns in front of the camera that the East London-based Genesis Cinema turned, in order to pay tribute to Bowie. In aid of Cancer Research UK, the Genesis screened a sold-out show of the 1976 Nicholas Roeg sci-fi drama The Man Who Fell To Earth, alongside live music and DJ's spinning Bowie's greatest hits late into the night.
The film, which stars Bowie as the extremely pale, and extremely thin 'Thomas Jerome Newton', an alien visitor to our planet disguised as a billionaire tech inventor, is perhaps the best example of the unearthly qualities Bowie could bring to the screen. The BBC's Alan Yentob was actually responsible for getting the singer this proper first feature-film role, after director Nicolas Roeg watched the 1974 documentary Cracked Actor. In that documentary, Bowie is captured at perhaps his most exotic; rake-thin and with a shock of bleached orange hair. Notoriously, his drug use had become epic by that point, further enhancing his air of odd detachment, as well as that extremely gaunt appearance. Roeg was fascinated by the possibilities of using Bowie as the POV character in a film about an alien lost in modern Earth.
As stranded alien Thomas Jerome Newton, seeking to transport water back to his parched planet, Bowie apparently required little physical transformation, even though its not clear how much directing he actually took or 'acting' he actually was able to do given his diet of cocaine at the time. But the film is striking in other ways too, particularly how the script, cinematography and sound mix make the world around Bowie, particularly 1970s New Mexico, ironically more strange than the extraterrestrial main character. Skewed camera angles, a character roster full of American eccentrics, endless rows of TVs (Newton becomes a TV junkie, as well an alchoholic) and a soundtrack laced with electronic quirks, all make this new America of cheap booze and cable TV appear like another planet itself. Despite being far superior to us in terms of intelligence, Newton's quest ultimately grinds to a halt because our own planet freaks him out so much, to the point where he is reduced to yelling "get out of my mind' as he lies before a bank of TVs in his suite, unable to resist the allure of a device which fascinates him even if, as he muses, "it never tells you anything".
The Genesis were fortunate to be able to screen this strange but captivating film, given reports surfaced soon after Bowie's death that the UK distributors were not likely to allow screenings due to a desire to re-release the film in the near-future. Until that day, those wanting to see what happened when Bowie collided with the dystopian sci-fi sub-genre, are advised to look around retailers like Amazon, where previous bluray releases and VOD options can be found.