David Bowie

From Jareth to Tesla: David Bowie’s Most Famous Roles

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With the sad passing of David Bowie this week, we take a look at some of the musician’s most iconic moments in film.

The 10th January 2016 is now fated to be another sadly significant date in contemporary musical history. Today saw the tragic passing of musical icon David Bowie, who has spent the last four decades making bold new steps with his unparalleled career. From Hunky Dory to Diamond Dogs, from Ziggy Stardust to Let’s Dance, Bowie never stood still for long and never stopped shifting his shape.

Bowie wasn’t just a musical icon, though. A lot of the daring impressions he made on popular culture were visual, and he was no stranger to the movie business.

As a tribute to David Bowie, we’re going to look at a few of his more memorable roles, starting of course with…

The Man who Fell to Earth (1976)

David Bowie
Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton in “The Man who Fell to Earth”

Based on the novel of the same name, The Man who Fell to Earth told the tale of an alien looking to send water home to his dehydrated planet. This was Bowie’s first crack at a starring role after a few bit parts in television and a short film. Bowie took to the role of Thomas Jerome Newton effortlessly. Something about the surreal imagery and bizarre aesthetic that prevented the film from garnering mainstream success sat right in Bowie’s wheelhouse. It’s not hard to see why the film has such a huge cult following so many decades later. Images from the film also made their way onto two Bowie albums – Low and Station to Station.

Merry Christmas, Mr Laurence (1983)

David Bowie
Bowie as Major Jack Celliers in “Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence”

The Japanese-British drama with the confusing name. Bowie plays Major Jack Celliers, one of four men trapped in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. The musician made a considerable leap with this role after The Man who Fell to Earth, playing a more honest and exposed soul. His guilt-ridden performance is one of the most dependable parts of this film, and contributed greatly to its success. Merry Christmas, Mr Laurence was entered into the Palme D’Or at the 193 Cannes Film Festival, losing out to another Japanese film, The Ballad of Narayama.

Labyrinth (1986)

David Bowie
Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King in “Labyrinth”

It wouldn’t be a David Bowie filmography without Labyrinth. The fantastical collaborator between Muppeteer Jim Henson and Monty Python’s Terry Jones saw Bowie make a lasting dent in the childhood of many as Jareth the Goblin King. Unlike his previous roles, Bowie has no trouble accessing his flamboyant showman-side in this film. Labyrinth is another example of a film that didn’t break any banks at the time but has had no trouble gathering a serious cult following. There’s even a manga series based on the feature called Return to Labyrinth.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

David Bowie
Bowie as Pontius Pilate in “The Last Temptation of Christ”

Bowie’s spell as Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ is a softly spoken one. It would be an easy role to overplay given that he’s playing one of the most famous villains of all time. However, Bowie has no trouble playing Pilate as quietly calculating as well as being disarming. Of all the roles in Temptation, Bowie’s was probably one of the least controversial, but his performance is still one that stays with you. Despite all the debates and the outrage, the movie was a critical and commercial success, gaining among its accolades a nomination for Martin Scorcese for Best Director.

Basquiat (1996)

David Bowie
Bowie as Andy Warhol in “Basquiat”

It’s hard to imagine two pop culture icons quite as well suited to each other as Bowie and master of Pop Art Andy Warhol. So it’s an even bigger treat to see one play the other! Bowie payed an effective homage to Warhol in Basquiat, which follows the artist mentoring the film’s namesake, the young expressionist Jean-Michael Basquiat. Sure, the wig-work may have been a tad over-the-top, but Bowie makes it work all the same.

The Prestige (2006)

David Bowie
Bowie as Nikola Tesla in “The Prestige”

The final Bowie role on this list is of yet another historical figure, albeit less like Bowie himself than Warhol was. The Prestige sees magician rivals Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale push themselves to the limit to be the greatest performer. In their desperation they come across none other than Bowie himself as Nikola Tesla. Bowie plays the step-father of electrical innovation with an air of dismissive genius. Although he isn’t in the film for very long, he has a lasting impression of mystery on Jackman’s character as well as the audience.

Which Bowie roles do you think we missed?

One thought on “From Jareth to Tesla: David Bowie’s Most Famous Roles”

  1. He played himself memorably in the terrifying ‘Christiane F’, a film worth seeing no matter how difficult it is to watch, and made better for his inclusion and soundtrack.

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