There are few other artists that have so successfully melded mediums and traversed boundaries than has David Bowie. Bowie is at once a brand and an inventor, and his involvement across the entirety of the cultural spectrum overshadows that of all of his contemporaries.
Due to his inherent fascination with the visual arts, cinema was an obvious second home for him. He has 42 acting credits to his name. His striking looks, lithe screen presence and artistic notoriety have opened doors which have allowed him to play an alien, a goblin king, Nikola Tesla, a British Army Major, Pontius Pilate, Andy Warhol and, of course, himself.
His music carries in it the cinematic germ; the imagery of the lyrics is as arresting as what we see on the big screen, the vocals are manipulated to convey a multiverse of personalities. No other musician, with the exception, perhaps, of Bob Dylan, carries over so well to our medium.
This list covers the ten best uses of his songs in film; no covers, all Bowie.
10. ‘Let’s Dance’ – Zoolander
Our opening entry involves what is no doubt Bowie’s greatest cameo appearance. Let’s Dance, from 1983, is perhaps his one and only out-and-out disco number; the ripe bass and surging guitars adding stomp to the airy lyrics.
In Zoolander, the song plays for only a matter of seconds as Bowie steps to the camera, removes the shades and declares that he ‘might be of service’. Let’s Dance is super-commercial, a club speciality; and thus the only track that could announce the man’s entry in a manner that would aid recognition among Zoolander’s zoo of dunderheads, whilst also indicating the type of contest that’s about to go down.
9. ‘Young Americans’ – Dogville
Dogville is Lars Von Trier’s strange study of the quintessential American town. Located unluckily in the Rocky Mountains, Dogville keeps a modest and jaded citizenry, the shining star of which is an idealistic young writer named Tom Edison (played by Paul Bettany). Edison spends his time trying to rally the townsfolk, in an effort to open up discussions on community values, camaraderie, and brotherhood; all under the umbrella term of ‘moral rearmament’.
These people are not wealthy in possessions or spirit; the town is drenched in, what Thoreau would have called, quiet desperation. Edison tries to live up to his family’s name (his father before him boasting the role of community leader), and it is, perhaps, this need to emulate and surpass that is his main drive.
Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’, from the 1975 album of the same name, centres around mid-century Americana; the freedom and the music and the lust of new youth. The lyrics illustrate a culture still preoccupied with the visions of the 1950’s; that of genuine celluloid heroes and a gettable American Dream. It was as the Seventies dawned, however, that people began to see past the gloss; reality did not match up to those prepubescent notions.
The song plays over the ending credits alongside photographs of poverty-wracked citizens. The movie was criticized for being anti-American, indeed – both the film and the song are from the viewpoint of outsiders looking in; Bowie urges, however, that this country, the dreams of which had fuelled his youth, could regain its former glory.
8. ‘Fashion’ – Clueless
Cherilyn Horowitz leads a plush and regimented life. Living in her father’s mansion in Beverley Hills, she wants for nothing but the social acclaim she believes her ferociously-governed routine will grant her.
Alicia Silverstone plays ‘Cher’ with a light and loquacious charisma, and the seriousness with which she regards her own public image seems out of place – until we meet her father. The Horowitz patriarch is a high-priced litigator; vicious and overbearing in nature but adored unequivocally by Cher.
Bowie’s 1980 single cuts in at the beginning of the movie, as Cher narrates; ‘I actually have a way normal life for a teenage girl. I mean; I get up, I brush my teeth, and I pick out my school clothes…’ the camera then finds her sitting before an outsize computer, using a programme called ‘Cher’s Wardrobe’, selecting possible sartorial combinations for the day, occasionally interrupted by error messages stating ‘Mismatch’.
The song lays out the fashion world as a militarily-organized state, subject to the force of the goon squad. Bowie’s delivery is that of an automaton; repeating the lines fed to him – he is a thing on which to hang clothes, for the eyes only of strangers.
7. ‘Fame’ – Rush
Bowie recorded ‘Fame’ with John Lennon in 1975, and placed at the end of his Young Americans album. Unlike many of other Bowie hits, this song has no strange or alternate undercurrents; it is an all-out diatribe against the trappings of stardom.
Fame, as Bowie saw it in the cocaine-laden mid-Seventies, was not something to be chased or admired; it was a capricious mistress that would chew you up and leave you dying on the sidewalk. Ron Howard appeared to take a similar view when he made Rush.
The dichotomy between the two protagonists is made clear from the outset; one sees winning as something to be achieved for its own sake, the other sees it as a means to a good time. Niki Lauda was a steadfast professional of the racing circuit, producing brilliant results with remarkable consistency; James Hunt was a bright star who was swallowed up after winning the Formula One World Championship in 1976.
‘Fame’ plays near the end of the movie, over a montage of Hunt’s orgies, drug-taking, and novelty television appearances. The audience is under no confusion as to the film’s message; Hunt shrunk from greatness. His is a road best not taken.
Bowie himself, of course, took a similar line to Lauda.
6. ‘Sweet Head’ – Moonlight Mile
Set in 1973, Moonlight Mile tells the tale of a young man (Jake Gyllenhaal) trying to cope with the sudden death of his fiancée.
Once alight with the passion and the promise of 20th century greenness; Gyllenhaal’s character, Joe, is now a ghost – walking the knife-edge between a foreseeable future and ungovernable despair.
In the background of this eggshelled existence we hear the raucous and upbeat music of the likes of Elton John, T-Rex and Gary Glitter, alongside more subdued numbers such as Dylan’s ‘Buckets of Rain’ and Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Comin’ Back To Me’.
The song that most stands out, however, both for its quintessentially 70’s guitar riff and brassy lyrics is ‘Sweet Head’, from Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust sessions. The song did not appear on the Stardust album, dropped presumably at the behest of nervous record executives. Indeed; the lines are loaded with racial slurs and undisguised innuendo; tough-talk too street to release.
‘Sweet Head’ is a shameless celebration of sexuality; sordid, strung-out and totally Glam, this is 70’s youth at its essence – and it’s painfully at odds with the world as it’s seen by our protagonist.
Joe’s light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel comes in the form of Bertie Knox; a pretty young barmaid who offers him another chance at the sweetness of life. We grow to realize that the use of the Ziggy ditty may not be as cruel as first thought.