David Bowie on film: his best movie appearances
11 January 2022, 19:03 | Updated: 11 January 2022, 19:08
Want to pay tribute to the superstar after you’ve listened to all of his albums? You could take in the cream of his screen appearances - here's the ultimate Bowie movie list.
The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)
Bowie’s first starring role was as the titular Thomas J. Newton, an alien who travels to earth from his drought-ridden planet and attempts to fund his world’s rescue by making it big in the electronics business. If it’s your first time, you may need a quick scan of the plot synopsis to keep track of what’s happening, as time skips backwards, forwards and contracts as the ageless Newton sees everyone around him get older. Critics claimed that Bowie was merely playing himself, coming as it did at the height of his drug-induced psychosis in the mid-1970s, but this view underestimates Bowie’s skill as a mime. He brings a hidden, sympathetic dimension to this literally alienated character, who winds up exploited by humans: "We'd have probably done the same to you, if you'd come 'round our place."
Muppet maestro Jim Henson directed this fantasy movie which features Bowie in perhaps his best-loved role, The Goblin King. Jennifer Connolly plays the 15-year-old girl who has to rescue her baby brother from the evil Jareth. Much puppet-based adventure ensues, which includes a show-stopping song from Bowie: Magic Dance.
Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983)
Bowie plays Major Jack Celliers, a soldierin a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp with a guilty secret. There’s Unresolved Sexual Tension and much Allies/Japanese cultural friction in this World War II drama, plus music from star Ryuichi Sakamoto and would-be-Bowie David Sylvian. It’s all very worthy, but rates as one of Bowie’s best performances.
Absolute Beginners (1986)
Director Julien Temple (The Great Rock ’N’ Roll Swindle) helmed this colourful musical romp about Britain in the 1950s. Bowie plays slick advertising man Vendice Partners and, of course, performs the title song, one of his best singles of the decade. It’s all very 80s - Patsy Kensit plays a character called Crepe Suzette, Sade’s in it, there’s music from The Style Council and the thing pretty much destroyed the British film industry - but it’s candy floss fun.
The Hunger (1983)
Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie play vampires in modern day New York in another movie that equates blood-sucking with drug addiction. It’s glamorous nonsense, but it opens brilliantly as the Bowie-influenced band Bauhuas perform their classic track Bela Lugosi’s Dead in a nightclub.
Just A Gigolo (1978)
A famous flop from actor-turned-director David Hemmings that Bowie called “my 32 Elvis Presley movies rolled into one”. Set in Berlin after the First World War, it was filmed as Bowie was cutting his ties with the city and featured the last movie appearance by the cinematic legend Marlene Dietrich. It’s a decadent folly in the mould of Cabaret (1972), but this might be one for the committed Bowiephile.
The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988)
Martin Scorsese’s controversial film version of the life of Christ sees Bowie play Pontius Pilate, the man who literally washes his hands of Jesus and seals his fate. It's three hours long and Bowie turns up near the end, of course.
Let’s get arty with a biopic of the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Jeffrey Wright plays the titular star, but Bowie absolutely steals the show by appearing as Andy Warhol. You won’t believe the wig (it actually belonged to Warhol), but it’s a reminder of what a skilful actor Bowie really was.
The Prestige (2006)
Two stage magicians at the end of the 19th Century battle each other over who has the best trick. Bowie plays the real-life engineer Nikola Tesla, who helps one of them with an intriguing gadget. It’s a small but important appearance by the star, and one that director Christopher Nolan had to personally travel to New York to get Bowie to accept.
Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (1981)
14-year-old Christiane lives with her single parent mum in West Berlin in the mid-70s, and lives only for the weekend, where she goes out clubbing at a disco that seems to only play Bowie and indulges in some recreational drug use. After a trip to see The Thin White Duke himself in concert, things rapidly spiral downhill as Christiane is inducted into the world of heroin addicts. It inevitably gets grim, but this is a fascinating true story of teenage drug abuse that shocked the nation at the time. The soundtrack is peppered with Berlin-era Bowie music and the man himself has never looked cooler as he casually strolls onto the stage to sing Station To Station.
Ben Stiller stars as the eponymous model in this often hilarious satire on the fashion industry. Bowie appears out of nowhere to judge a “walk-off” between Stiller and Owen Wilson: "If nobody has any objections, I believe I might be of service."