In this series Andrew Anderson has been watching films staring musicians so you don't have to
David Bowie is the ideal rock star to play a cinematic version of himself. He’s cool, he’s got incredible presence and heck, he can even act a bit. So it is a shame that in his 69 years on earth no one ever thought to devote 90-plus minutes of silver screen time to Bowie playing Bowie. Ah well.
What we do have, though, is Bowie at the height of his considerable bony-cheeked powers playing a character that would go on to become David Bowie. Confused? You should be – after all, this is the wizard of weird we’re talking about here. Let me explain.
In 1975 Bowie had killed off Ziggy Stardust and was looking for a new on stage persona to inhabit. At the same time he signed up to play Thomas Jerome Newton in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth (TMWFTE). Newton is a fey, detached alien who stands out from the crowd like… well, like David Bowie in a crowd. So Bowie decided to keep playing the character after the film was over, re-titling himself The Thin White Duke. Hence Newton became The Thin White Duke who, in turn, became Bowie. Think of it as method acting in reverse. All of which is just my tortuous way of saying that TMWFTE is Bowie playing Bowie after all. Got it?
This movie opens with Bowie falling from the sky and staggering around in some gravel. The first thing you notice is that he looks stylish for an alien – imagine the red-haired lady from Sex and the City dressed as a mod and you’ll get the general impression. He wanders past some demented carnival folk and eventually reaches civilisation.
It turns out Bowie is a very clever alien (except in the ’90s of course when he was a very embarrassing alien) and knows about all kinds of cool technology. With the aid of a patent lawyer who looks like Bubbles from Trailer Park Boys he has soon set up his own company and achieved global domination. By today’s standards the technology looks pretty lame: his main invention is essentially a Polaroid camera (which had already been invented in 1948), but never mind.
The journey from landing on earth to technology tycoon only takes about 20 minutes, which seems, well, a tad brief. In fact TMWFTE spends more screen time on Bowie shagging than it does on telling the actual story. Now I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – I like watching Bowie’s skinny little bum going up and down as much as the next man – but it does mean that you’ll spend most of the film asking yourself, ‘what is going on?’ or ‘what is this film actually about?’ or ‘is that Bowie’s skinny arse again?’
Around this time we’re introduced to a character called the Fuck Professor (okay that’s not his real name but it might as well have been). The Fuck Professor gets his kicks by shagging his students, who say creepy shit to him like ‘you’re not at all like my father’ while he makes a series of gurgling sexual sounds. It is not clear what this boob bonanza bit is all about, though it must have been a godsend for teenage boys who came across it in their parent’s video collection in the pre-internet age, if you’ll excuse the pun. Later on the Fuck Professor helps Bowie with his inventions… but his earlier sexual actions remain unexplained.
Oh, I forgot to mention that Bowie has severe travel sickness, and whenever he moves too fast (in a car or a lift, say) he starts bleeding out of his nose and throwing up. He must have been a fucking nightmare on the interstellar journey to earth.
One of the people he throws up on is Mary-Lou, a slack-jawed southern type who becomes Bowie’s carer/lover. After getting smashed on gin he tells Mary-Lou he is an alien, peeling off his skin and taking out his contacts. Mary-Lou literally pisses herself with fear (an act we see in gratuitous close up), before experimentally boning him, at which point she gets covered in alien jizz, which looks a lot like normal jizz, and then she runs away.
As you will have gathered, an awful lot of things happen in this film. It is around two hours and twenty in length, which is at least 45 minutes too long. The storytelling – not lucid at the best of times – disintegrates as it progresses, and once the novelty factor of watching Bowie act has worn off TMWFTE becomes pretty hard to bear. As a result, I can’t come close to giving you a successfully succinct synopsis of this film.
There is, though, one major element that I’ve yet to mention. Throughout TMWFTE we are treated to cutaways of Bowie’s family living on his home planet. The filmmakers clearly had run out of budget by this point as Bowie’s alien house looks more like a motorised turd train than a liveable dwelling. His family, meanwhile, resemble a squadron of emaciated pest control professionals.
Unfortunately, TMWFTE just sort of peters out. All of the characters (except Bowie) get old, and in the end he realises his family must have died in their dry dung domicile back on the planet poo. As a result he has to live on earth forever, watching the friends he has made slowly pass away.
Ultimately, it’s not a very good film. The plot is stupid, the acting poor and the direction – particularly the use of extreme zooms – laughable. Of course it has one major redeeming feature: David Bowie. Whatever he does looks cool, even when it is hopelessly contrived. That’s the magic of the man, and why he will be so missed.