For five decades, his music has captured the yearning for exploration, created a heartfelt love song out of a couple's embrace, and seductively implored listeners to start dancing. For almost as long, his angular frame has filled cinema screens, enlivening alien visitors, lovelorn vampires, and taunting goblin kings.
That David Bowie is an icon of sound and vision could never be in doubt, the artist providing the score for, and the face of, several generations. As well as showering listeners with essential albums to devour, and viewers with cult films to consume, music and movie magic have also combined in the works he has inspired, as evidenced in his inimitable imprint upon the world of film and television soundtracks.
When a savvy high-schooler wonders at her wardrobe in Clueless; when a troubled teen expresses himself by singing to his mirror in C.R.A.Z.Y.; when a lonely boy finds the song that makes him feel like he belongs in The Perks of Being a Wallflower; when a spaceship carrying unlikely heroes hurtles through space in Guardians of the Galaxy: it is Bowie’s music that expresses the mood. Layering his songs over a scene might be shorthand for conveying cool; however as much as his music provides style, it also offers substance.First, his influence echoed throughout Uli Edel's Christiane F., with Bowie appearing as himself in the feature. His involvement sprang from actuality, the film re-enacting the real-life plight of its titular teenager, including her first dalliance with heroin at one of his concerts. Footage of Bowie performing "Station to Station", and the sounds of "Look Back in Anger", "Heroes", "Boys Keep Swinging" and "TVC15", are woven into her rollercoaster ride through the Berlin underworld. The ever-present music encapsulates Christiane's downward spiral, conveying the passions, pains, dreams and disasters of her experimentation.
Wes Anderson also favoured the immersive approach with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the tale of a son trying to connect with his possible father unravelling to Bowie's hits. Here, the familiar refrains of "Starman", "Rebel Rebel", "Rock & Roll Suicide" and more wash over the film in largely acoustic, Portuguese versions by Brazilian musician Seu Jorge. As well as evoking Anderson's usual quirky vibe, the songs hone in on the feature's leisurely yet pervasive wistfulness. They also provide a striking tonal and emotional contrast to the Bowie tracks used in their original form, such as the upbeat "Queen Bitch" over the feature's climax and closing credits.
British television series Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes similarly steeped their content in Bowie, offering soundtracks to match their titles. Given the musician's ability to conjure otherworldly feelings, his work proved a perfect match for narratives about protagonists thrust out of their time and comfort zones, perhaps by cosmic trickery. Both programs filter not just his songs throughout their stories, but their details as well: their shared antagonist, Gene "Jean Genie" Hunt; the haunting sprinkling of "Life on Mars" throughout both shows; the clown from the "Ashes to Ashes" video terrorising the lead in its namesake. Small touches, they give on-screen flesh to Bowie's music, informed by them and simultaneously moulding them into a new form.
Sometimes, it is a single song, rather than an extended playlist, that evokes the appropriate atmosphere. In Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino found the ideal track to prepare to set fire to a cinema to – and though the lyrics to Cat People (Putting Out Fire) provide an obvious connection to the plans of a Jewish woman forced to open her theatre to high-ranking Nazis during the Second World War, its use writhes with power beyond words. The song's brooding introduction scores the ritual of putting on make-up, its dramatic build up then interlaced with footage of a crucial part of the revenge plot central to the film. There's no mistaking the fury that simmers within the sequence, or the foreshadowing of explosive emotion and action that Tarantino is about to set off.
French auteur Leos Carax also found the right track to capture a specific sentiment in a single scene, colouring Mauvais Sang with Modern Love – the song, and the emotion. A radio dedication sparks a wander down a Parisian street, stumbling, then jogging, leaping, cartwheeling and sprinting. The unbridled display is equally expressive and cathartic, the tracking camera almost struggling to keep up with the effusive spirit of actor Denis Lavant as he bounds across the screen. His acrobatics make for one of modern cinema's most iconic displays, one since reinterpreted by Noah Baumbach in Frances Ha. There, the same song sparks a New York-set homage, the lead character running and dancing from right to left in a rare moment of bliss in her messy life. Baumbach also features Bowie in his latest film, While We're Young, bookending its missive on aging to instrumental and original versions of "Golden Years".
What Bowie and his music represents often guides the use of his tunes in film and television, and saw Ryan Murphy feature "Life on Mars" and "Heroes" in American Horror Story: Freak Show. The program's creator has stated that he chose songs from musicians who identified as freaks, with the stereotype-busting performer a natural choice. As Elsa Mars – a nod to Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – Jessica Lange belts out episode-stopping renditions of two of his most iconic songs. Concluding the season with Heroes, American Horror Story also mirrors the shots and angles from the accompanying music video, layering original and refashioned takes on both the track and its visuals in a tribute to non-conformity.
Bowie's influence also rears its head in other places: John Hughes used lyrics from "Changes", as text on screen, to open The Breakfast Club's celebration of individuality and diversity, while David Lynch featured two versions of "I'm Deranged" to open and close Lost Highway, expressing the feature's obsession with duality. Most recently, Mad Men employed Space Oddity over the credits of its antepenultimate episode, gifting the show with perhaps its finest musical moment. What better way to conclude an installment that sets its ad-man hero adrift on the road, contrasts the varying plights of its female leads in the 1970s workplace, spoils viewers with splashes of oddness and signals the change that will flavour the conclusion to the series? That's the power of David Bowie, the spell cast by his music, and the wonder that stems from weaving his inimitable sounds through the film and television landscape.
– Sarah Ward is a Brisbane writer and film critic.