It’s impossible to look at David Jones and not see the character David Bowie. When Jones changed his name in the early 1960s to avoid confusion with the well-known, button-nose pop singer Davy Jones of The Monkees, his concerns were initially commercial.
But with that name change came a kind of release that opened Bowie up to the role of a lifetime: rock ’n’ roll chameleon. Jones invented Bowie, but it was Bowie who invented a glittering parade of unforgettable rock personas: Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, the Young American. Whether he intended it or not, those onstage roles were all precursors to a wholly unpredictable, nearly 40-year on-screen career that has taken him everywhere from outer space to the Bible, Andy Warhol’s Factory and a Japanese prison camp.
Because at Trunkworthy we love a credible double threat, we thought we’d run down five unforgettable Bowie performances you have to see:
The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)
Though Bowie had done some minor British TV work early on, this Nicolas Roeg (The Witches, Track 29) film was the perfect launching point for him. Already known for his space jones, Bowie plays the humanoid alien Thomas Jerome Newton, a cold, sallow-skinned visitor in search of water for his parched planet. Along the way, Newton is transformed into a mega-rich industrialist obsessed with booze, TV, and sex with his earthbound girlfriend, Mary-Lou.
Part environmental treatise, part commentary on racism (Newton is apprehended once it’s discovered he’s an alien), the movie is a mind-bending, abstract strobe light barrage of surreal images and seemingly unconnected scenes that has helped make it an enduring cult classic and Bowie’s finest, freakiest cinematic moment.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)
Bowie thought long and hard before taking his next starring role, with a stop along the way at 1983’s sensual vampire feast The Hunger. But in this fertile acting period he stretched himself well beyond his previous roles to play British soldier Jack Celliers.
Set in 1942, the film finds Celliers trapped in a Japanese prison camp overseen by the harsh Yonio (Japanese music star Ryuichi Sakamoto), who loathes Celliers and his fellow British POWs for what he perceives as their cowardice in surrendering.
But even amid the taunting, threats of execution and torture, the inscrutable Bowie breaks through his frosty British reserve to help his captors discover their hardened souls, not to mention the beauty in breaking down walls between warring cultures. It’s an intense two-hour journey that late critic Roger Ebert said was “even stranger than it was intended to be.”
Absolute Beginners (1986)
The 1980s was the period where Bowie seemingly realized stealing scenes was his thing. And he was definitely in his sweet spot in this adaptation of novelist Colin MacInnes’ book about late-1950s London helmed by noted video director/pal Julien Temple (The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, The Filth and the Fury). Playing the secondary role of slick ad man Vendice Partners in the ambitious musical about the cultural, political, racial and sexual revolutions rocking post-war Britain, the excruciatingly dapper, pompadoured singer shares a memorable performance scene with star Eddie O’Connell.
Helping to lure O’Connell’s naïve, striving photographer to greater heights, Bowie dances on a giant typewriter, scales Everest, tap dances in heaven and gleefully enumerates the seven deadly sins.
He also contributed the title track and the song “That’s Motivation” to a packed soundtrack that featured costars Ray Davies of The Kinks and then-rising star Sade, as well as The Style Council and film lead Patsy Kensit.
Talk about a role Bowie was born to play. In this biopic of the neo-expressionist graffiti-artist-turned-art-world phenom Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bowie only appears in a handful of scenes opposite devastatingly great lead Jeffrey Wright, but he absolutely nails the emotionally distant pop art icon Andy Warhol in every single one.
With his wispy white wig, deadpan Valley-Girl-meets-obstinate teen vocal inflection, fey body posture, and fickle nature, the singer perfectly captures Warhol’s slippery, unapproachably vapid celebrity-worshipping persona.
The Prestige (2006)
Before Interstellar and Inception, director Christopher Nolan offered up this dark portrait of rival magicians in late 19th-century England. In the middle of a cast that included stars Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, as well as Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, and real-life card shark Ricky Jay, Bowie once again makes the most of his limited screen time as real-life inventor Nikola Tesla.
Charged with conjuring a teleportation device for Jackman’s Angier, a mustachioed, hoarse-voiced Bowie informs our hero that, “nothing is impossible, Mr. Angier—what you want is simply expensive,” urging the magician to consider the human cost of his obsessive folly. It’s no wonder that Nolan said Bowie was the only actor he ever considered for the “small, but very important role.” But, as we well know, there are no small parts, only small actors. And Bowie? Well, Bowie makes everything feel huge.