Film and TV

In Lieu of Stardust, Check Out These Iconic David Bowie Moments in Film

Forget the non-Bowie approved Stardust and check out these iconic Bowie film moments instead.
Forget the non-Bowie approved Stardust and check out these iconic Bowie film moments instead. Elmar J. Lordemann via Wikimedia Commons
You’d think that the first thing you’d get squared away before working on a David Bowie movie was, you know, his music. Apparently, that’s something that might have slipped the minds of the creative team behind Stardust.
The upcoming film follows in the footsteps of successful recent musical biopics such as Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, exploring Bowie’s early years in which he developed the Ziggy Stardust persona. Johnny Flynn stars as Bowie in this “origin story” (because in a way, he was a real-life superhero).

While Bowie’s life story is undeniably compelling and has the potential to be a subversive and interesting film, it’s not something that the departed rock star ever wanted. In fact, Bowie’s family and estate never approved of a film about his life, and thus they never approved the licensing of any of his music.

So how exactly do you tell Bowie’s story without any of his greatest work? Stardust hits VOD services on Nov. 25, so we’ll have to wait until then to see if Flynn’s performance is convincing and if the film can work only using the cover songs Bowie would have performed at the time, and not any of his original music. But why settle for an imitation? Bowie may be gone, but he’s left a rich legacy of film work that certainly deserves more attention than a splashy biopic that no one asked for. If you’re looking for Stardust alternatives, take a look at some of Bowie’s most notable roles and music contributions to films.

Performance: Phillip Jeffries in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
The character of Phillip Jeffries, an enigmatic FBI agent who disappeared during an investigation, was only hinted at throughout the original run of Twin Peaks on ABC, but the 1992 prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me featured Bowie in a prominent role (with an incredible Southern accent, no less). With less than 10 minutes of screen time, Bowie delivers captivating work as he befuddles Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and Chief Cole (David Lynch) by disappearing with a cryptic message.

Needle Drop: “Modern Love” in Frances Ha
Has there ever been a purer distillation of joy than the sight of Greta Gerwig dancing down the street to “Modern Love”? The signature sequence is perhaps the most recognizable moment from Noah Baumbach’s acclaimed 2013 romantic comedy.

Performance: Jareth in Labyrinth
Perhaps Bowie’s most recognizable film role, Labyrinth casts the rocker as the Goblin King, who traps a teenage Jennifer Connolly within a fantastical maze filled with magical creatures. Directed by Muppets creator Jim Henson, Labyrinth is among the more overtly sexual fantasy films of the 1980s, in part due to Bowie’s captivating, seductive performance.

Needle Drop: “Cat People” in Inglorious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino is known for inserting modern music into period pieces, and only a few of his needle drops have been as effective as the use of Bowie’s “Cat People” in Inglorious Basterds. As Jewish theater owner Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) prepares her trap for Hitler’s inner circle, Bowie’s bass voice provides the perfect emotional hook for the rising action.

Performance: Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ
Believe it or not, Bowie’s casting as Pontius Pilate actually isn’t the weirdest performance in Martin Scorsese’s controversial religious epic The Last Temptation of Christ (that would be Harvey Keitel as Judas). Either way, it’s interesting to see Bowie in a more reserved role as he explains to Jesus (Willem Dafoe) why he must be executed.

Needle Drop: “I’m Deranged” in Lost Highway
Bowie already had a working relationship with David Lynch thanks to their work on Twin Peaks, so it made sense that Bowie would lend his music to Lynch for his hypnotic psycho-sexual thriller Lost Highway. “I’m Deranged” both opens and closes the film, using Bowie’s haunting vocals to underscore the dark and disturbing world of Lynch’s imagination.

Performance: Nikola Tesla in The Prestige
In perhaps one of the greatest pieces of stunt casting ever, Bowie shows up as Nikola Tesla in The Prestige. Who better to play the greatest technological mind of all time than the greatest musical mind of a generation?

Needle Drop: “Under Pressure” in Grosse Pointe Blank
Long before Stranger Things and Ready Player One popularized '80s nostalgia, the 1997 action-comedy Grosse Pointe Blank used an '80s soundtrack to follow a hitman (John Cusack) who returns to his home town for his high school graduation. What song plays during the climatic reunion dance? “Under Pressure,” of course!

Performance: Himself in Zoolander
Displaying his ability to laugh at himself, Bowie cameos in Zoolander, where he oversees the “walk-off” between idiotic male models Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) and Hansel McDonald (Owen Wilson). Stiller has said he’s shocked to this day that they managed to get Bowie for the role.

Needle Drop: “Space Oddity” in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Has there ever been a movie as bad as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets that has an opening five minutes this great? “Space Oddity” serves as the background music during a montage where humans branch out and develop friendly relationships with various alien races. The rest of the (Bowie-less) movie only goes downhill from there.

Performance: Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell To Earth
Bowie bared it all with his performance as an enigmatic visitor from another solar system who begins to explore human sexuality. This slowly paced, surrealist sci-fi film from filmmaker Nicolas Roeg allowed Bowie to take on the curious, not quite human character that he is often associated with.

Needle Drop: Various in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
Bowie’s idiosyncrasies serve as a perfect fit for the equally quirky world of Wes Anderson. Anderson’s film The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou features multiple covers of Bowie songs by Brazilian pop-samba performer Seu Jorge, including “Life on Mars,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “Space Oddity” and “Queen Bitch.”
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Liam Gaughan has been covering film and television since before he had a driver's license, and in addition to the Observer has been published in, Schmoes Know, Taste of Cinema and The Dallas Morning News. He enjoys checking classic films off of his watchlist and working on spec scripts.