Hooked to the Silver Screen: David Bowie’s Music on Film

The marriage between a film sequence and a pop song can be intoxicating. Meanwhile, these in-tandem energies can be simply exhilarating when young characters run as a song plays, the camera tracking their leaps as a tune booms on the soundtrack. Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting doesn’t start as much as burst forward to a thumping drumbeat, as Ewan McGregor’s Mark Renton rushes down an alley. In Noam Baumbach’s Frances Ha, the camera glides gracefully above Greta Gerwig’s Frances as she sprints and twirls to the left through New York’s Chinatown, trying her best to keep the momentum up as she evades the sidewalk dwellers. In an inverse of that moment, in Leos Carax’ Mauvais Sang, a gymnastic Denis Lavant runs rightward in the middle of the night, bolting forward without abandon. A rowdy band of teens run and tumble through a labyrinthine mall in the heart of Berlin in Christiane F., as the police pursue them.

The spirit of these three quixotic sequences only reaches the same breathless intensity of the young characters due to the music that plays above these moments: “Lust for Life,” two takes of “Modern Love” and “Heroes,” respectively. David Bowie wrote all three songs, and performed the latter two. Millions are still coming to terms with the late artist’s demise in January. But as his songs, stratifying and singular, remain testaments of a genius and grandeur that seems impossible to replicate, Bowie’s music continues to make a mark on those who view the films that included his work on the soundtracks. His discography has been featured in more than 500 movies and television shows, according to the Internet Movie Database, including an overwhelming number since the turn of the Millennium.

It is the electricity of Bowie’s genre-defying music that has ensured his voice rarely feels out-of-place on the silver screen. While his sound altered significantly between eras, many of his albums have a frenetic energy that still pulsates with a modern ethos. The music of The Rolling Stones – perhaps the only popular musical group with as much cinematic versatility as Bowie – is often a marker of age, a throwback to the roughness and rhythms of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Bowie’s music, in comparison, feels inherent to all times. It is easy to imagine “Sympathy for the Devil” blaring over the hedonism of a Scorsese opus, but a bit more intriguing to observe when a director lets the needle drop on one of Bowie’s tunes.

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Among the anachronistic rock tunes used in the medieval actioner A Knight’s Tale: Bowie’s “Golden Years.”

Just as Bowie threw curveballs with each personality (or is it fashion) change, filmmakers using the artist’s repertoire did so in admiringly unpredictable ways. After the grueling, near-three-hour journey that is Lars von Trier’s Dogville, it is a ghastly dark joke to have a full rendition of “Young Americans” play, winningly, over a closing credits packed with images of squalor and sickness. The lyrics inform the story we have just seen, arguably, more insightfully than the numerous scenes that preceded it. In comparison, in A Knight’s Tale, set in the midst of medieval England, a pleasant square dance scored to a fifed-up “Golden Years” then blends into the pop recording from centuries later. It makes sense that the woe of a German director and the whimsy of an American filmmaker sounds just like Bowie.

Bowie’s music is ageless, but it also feels timeless: for those unfamiliar with the chronology of his career, it is hard to mark when certain songs were recorded. Perhaps that is why his songs fit in with classic settings, although they don’t quite feel anachronistic. Unsurprisingly, the artist’s shifting identity mirrors the screen stories of people taking new personas. In The Imposter, the guitar chords of “Queen Bitch” fires up the soundtrack as real-life conman Frédéric Bourdin boards a school bus and becomes, in the eyes of his community, just an ordinary teen. Bloody crimsons add sheen to the moment of the heroine Shosanna’s transformation in Inglourious Basterds, but it is the purr of Bowie’s voice (on “Cat People”) that adds a toxic sensual charge to her change. Even Mad Men left a Bowie staple to one of its final episodes, as Don Draper (another man travelling under a false identity) escapes the big city for the open road, blasting off to “Space Oddity.”

That screwing around with identity can explain why so many of the characters that play his records in cinema are youths. “I feel infinite,” says the beaming teenage introvert played by Logan Lerman in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, as “Heroes” blares out the car radio. His object of affection played by Emma Watson is thrilled by the song, and proceeds to stand up through the sunroof and stretch her arms as the car throttles through a tunnel. In the original novel by Stephen Chbosky, there is an affirming “tunnel song” that the characters listen to as they drive through the space, but it goes unnamed. It makes sense that as the film’s director, Chbosky chose the life-affirming “Heroes.” However, the film loses some of its realism since the pop culture-averse characters don’t know the name or artist of the song when it plays. Who else could it be but Bowie?

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Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower uses “Heroes” in two pivotal sequences.

The scope of Bowie’s sound, whether the music is bold and brass like “Suffragette City,” or building hypnotically to a climax, as it does a minute into “Space Oddity,” is a natural accompaniment to the visual palettes of various filmmakers. As film critic Anthony Lane eulogized in The New Yorker in January, “His career, so conscientiously self-wrought, was more akin to that of a movie star than to that of a rocker, and it also suggested that he grasped the force of the moving image, and its fragile half-life, more acutely than many of those who bestride the dramatic profession.”

The versatility of Bowie’s stage creations, a collection of enigmas like the Thin White Duke and Ziggy Stardust, meant that his lyrics could be adaptable to many tones. “Heroes” gives Perks and Christiane F. – a dark film about drug addiction that actually features Bowie, as himself, playing in a prolonged concert sequence – a fizzy burst of energy. Its lyrics also offer optimism to swimming dolphins at the end of the downbeat Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, as well as amusing banter between the love interests of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! A more melancholy version of “Heroes” plays over the dedications at the end of Lone Survivor, a requiem to the American soldiers who risked their lives on one fateful day.

More recently, one of blockbuster cinema’s greatest montages, from Ridley Scott’s The Martian, uses the aspiring glam cool of “Starman” to show the accomplishments of scientists, both on Earth and Mars, as they work on a viable rescue scenario for the stranded astronaut played by Matt Damon. The expository scenes playing underneath – starring much of the film’s wide A-list ensemble – do not have much flow or energy by themselves. It is the blast of Bowie that ties them together. (The fuse between the film and song also has a tragic sting: The Martian picked up a top Golden Globe on the same day Bowie died.)

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Mélanie Laurent as Shosanna in Inglourious Basterds. “Cat People” scores her transformation in the film’s final chapter.

Even his deep cuts, such as the aptly-titled “I’m Deranged”, opens David Lynch’s nightmarish Lost Highway. Others, in the case of “Something in the Air,” concludes both American Psycho and Memento. Bowie was an artist of continual reinvention and unparalleled variety; alas, it is no surprise that so many of his songs, the hits and the deep cuts, bring added juice to a rich selection of films and genres. His music fits these stories just as Bowie would have liked: elegantly, insightfully, and often unexpectedly.

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