The 10 Best Uses of David Bowie Songs in Movies
5. ‘Golden Years’ – A Knight’s Tale
Offering a wry and jubilant take on a Chaucer story, director Brian Helgeland cast a bright-eyed Heath Ledger as the engaging young dreamer whose rise from serfdom to knighthood melted the hardest of noble hearts.
The film is formulaic, unashamedly so, but Helgeland and his cast inject it with rare irreverence and pathos. We’ve already heard Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’ by the time the sexy, serpentine guitar of ‘Golden Years’ makes its presence known. Halfway through a banquet, Ledger’s character, William, is coerced into performing the dance routine of his so-called home country.
What begins as an awkward, rueful improvisation is promptly transformed into a lively and modernised romp with a helping hand from Ledger’s love interest, played by Shannyn Sossamon. Bowie’s number takes over from a spirited troubadour ballad, and the extras in their colourful mediaeval trappings go wild.
This song, from 1976’s Station to Station, carries on its surface the promises of youth and action, while its menacing undertones foreshadow the (formulaic) downfall of our hero. The upward trajectory of William’s character development and his list of achievements also happen to legitimize Bowie’s opening sneer; ‘Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere’.
4. ‘The Hearts Filthy Lesson’ – Se7en
Set in a black and gloomy city at the backend of the American Century, David Fincher’s Se7en provided a poetic monument to the clinical willpower of psychopathy.
‘The Hearts Filthy Lesson’ was the first single from 1995’s Outside album. Bowie delivers the minimalist, mishmash lyrics in a reptilian croon; there is nothing behind this voice, no yearning, no emotion, it competes for our attention with the satanic guitar-sounds and the sickly, crashing drumbeat.
Se7en has something of an archetypal setup; two detectives – a rookie and a veteran, are paired up for a routine investigation that gradually evolves into something neither of them can understand. Detective Somerset, played by Morgan Freeman, has that Noirish, old cop’s grasp on human sin and degeneracy, and lives a life of dutiful darkness. His partner, Detective Mills, played by Brad Pitt, is a young man with a young wife, and doesn’t appear to have a grasp on too much of anything.
The aesthetics of the film bear an eerie resemblance to those of the ‘Hearts’ video. The palette is bleak, monotonous; Bowie and his half-naked minions engage in the ritual dismemberment of wax-like cadavers, the man himself flits here and there, gurning and snarling in his torture chamber. Indeed; this chamber is the heart; all blood and muscle and inexplicable desire. This is slaughter for its own sake; steeped in nihilism, but not without method.
If Se7en is the ceremony, ‘Hearts’ is the after-party; it plays over the closing credits, adding maniacal bombast to the two-hour procedural – and as to matters of the human heart, neither leaves us any the wiser.
3. ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’ – Inglorious Basterds
Jewish teen Shosanna escapes with her life from a brutally overlong scene and takes up proprietorship of a charming Parisian cinema. She is henceforth pursued by dapper Nazi Daniel Brühl, and strong-armed into holding a ‘German Night’ in her establishment. Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), with the memory of her family’s slaying still fresh, sees it as an opportunity; but not for personal growth.
‘See these eyes so green…’ sings a familiar voice as Laurent applies her war-paint and black veil in preparation for the coming slaughter. ‘Cat People’, originally penned for the 1982 film of the same name, and rerecorded a year later for Bowie’s album Let’s Dance, ties together ideas of human emotion and earthly nature, one being just as necessary and eternal as the other.
The song provides the backbone of the scene; this being the most slick and well-executed sequence in the whole of Tarantino’s wayward bloodbath.
Bowie delivers promises of vengeance and wrath in a resounding baritone; no horror is spared, nothing is forgotten. Laurent’s maniacal cackle, with her face projected above the rising smoke, yields precisely the same affect.
(Note the ominous mention of ‘a thousand years’, referenced also in Golden Years some time earlier, the latter a song considered by some to be an allegory of Hitler’s last days.)
2. ‘Heroes’ – The Perks of Being a Wallflower
This cool coming-of-age drama centres on the perspective of Charlie, a neurotic and sensitive introvert who has spent his youth watching from the wings. Upon beginning his freshman year at high school, he finds himself under the spell of an attractive senior named Sam (Emma Watson). Sam and her stepbrother Patrick (Ezra Miller) take Charlie into their hip and trendy circle, where he is exposed to the music of Sonic Youth, XTC and New Order, among others.
Music provides a life-map for these teenagers; and much of their time is spent mentally cataloguing various tracks, whilst searching for this one ‘perfect song’ – which the audience knows to be ‘Heroes’, but about which the characters haven’t a clue.
It is inconceivable that a group of teens, each of whom seem to know the entire back-catalogue of The Smiths, do not know the most famous song by Britain’s most famous musician. It is, however, a testament to the charm of the film that it doesn’t bother us too much.
Our protagonist goes through much heartache and paranoia and self-loathing in the course of the movie, as he watches the object of his affection carry on with her life in spite of him. Every day, Bowie would look out of the window of his rented Berlin studio and see two lovers meeting in secret by the Wall. They were the inspiration for this 1978 classic.
In the movie, ‘Heroes’ represents the coming-of-age flick specialty that is the longing for something more; the thing they seek which they cannot explain. They find it, of course, in a night-time, open-top drive amid the throes of adolescent ecstasy – it is the moment in which life seems not only doable, but full of crazy and romantic potential…‘and we kissed, as though nothing could fall.’
1. ‘Starman’ – The Martian
Ridley Scott’s fabulous return to form saw Matt Damon stranded on Mars with nothing to keep him alive but his own ingenuity. Meticulously put together with tremendous effects and a wonderful supporting cast (including Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels and Sean Bean), the movie melds fast-spoken science with humour and the odd charisma of its protagonist.
Damon’s character, Mark Watney, follows a similar trajectory to that of the Starchild of 2001: A Space Odyssey; travelling to and living in a place unsuited for human life, amassing first-hand knowledge of things his species had hitherto merely theorized about, and returning to Earth as a practical super-being, ready to help humanity progress.
‘Starman’, from the Ziggy Stardust album, seems to have been drawn directly from Kubrick’s film; an extra-terrestrial orbits the planet, apparently in two minds over whether the humans are evolved enough to handle the wisdom he will bring.
The song is played in its entirety over a glorious central sequence in which we see the various machinations carried out by NASA in their last-ditch effort to bring Watney back to Earth. Bowie, with his looping androgynous vocals and tinny, spacelike acoustic guitar makes euphoric this paean to human tenacity.
Author Bio: R.G. Foster is a writer from Northern England; he has published short fiction, poetry, sport articles, literary and music reviews. He is the owner of Foster Editorial (fostereditorial.co.uk): a start-up freelance writing business. His debut poetry volume, ‘Achilles On Reprieve’, is due out this year.
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