David Bowie is one of the protean and primordial figures in pop music’s pantheon, its first and perhaps most iconic chameleon. Between 1970 and 1980, he crafted a string of transformative albums that rivals—if not outright bests—any other decade-long run of greatness in the history of popular music. After beginning with the queer, folk-tinged psych-metal of The Man Who Sold The World and the off-kilter pop poetry of Hunky Dory, Bowie careened into deranged glamor of the epochal Ziggy Stardust era, before pivoting towards the wry Philadelphia soul pastiche of 1975’s Young Americans. In the back half of the decade, his image and music grew even darker and stranger: 1976’s Station to Station he finds his last great persona, the Thin White Duke, afloat amidst a suite of dark, desiccated synth-funk, and the ensuing “Berlin trilogy” (Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger) veers even further into the electronic void, before he brings it all home with 1980’s emotionally fraught Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), his wisest, most consummate album.
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Producers: Michael Deeley, Barry Spikings
Writers: Paul Mayersberg, Walter Tevis
Cinematographer: Anthony B. Richmond
Editor: Graeme Clifford
Music: John Phillips, Stomu Yamashta
Cast: David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark, Buck Henry, Bernie Casey
US Theatrical Release: May 28, 1976
US Distributor: Rialto Pictures
In so many ways, the story of that evolution is one of a man escaping the magnetic pull of rock’n’roll’s hallowed 1960s mythology. Whereas so many of the 1970s’ other towering figures of music—Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin—labored the decade away under the long shadow of the preceding decade’s counterculture, Bowie willfully transformed himself into something truly other than what had come before, a trick he repeated many times over. It’s fitting, then, that the figure of the alien became and remains the most commonly invoked and the most apt metaphor for Bowie's career, even after he junked the explicit sci-fi trappings of the Ziggy Stardust persona.
Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell To Earth, in which Bowie portrays an interstellar traveler who crash lands in New Mexico, is therefore a film that relies on the cultural image surrounding its star in order to establish its cinematic gestalt effect. In particular, the central role of photography, television, and radio in its plot gives an uncanny residual resonance to Bowie’s on-screen presence.
The Man Who Fell To Earth is based on a novel of the same name by author Walter Tevis, whose work also provided the inspiration for classic films such as the 1961 Paul Newman classic The Hustler and Martin Scorsese’s 1986 film The Color of Money. With its loose and meandering plot, it’s not hard to see traces of the story’s literary roots. After Bowie’s character, who roams Earth under the name Thomas Jerome Newton, begins his earthly journey, the narrative moves forward in fits and starts, and is often given over to impressionistic digressions and long, dialogue-heavy passages. The film is also strangely dotted with occasional voiceovers giving us insight into characters’ unspoken thoughts—although we never hear these from Newton, presumably in a nod to his otherworldly origin.
Broadly, the plot deals with Newton’s search for water to bring back to his dying planet and family. The film begins with his rapid ascendance within the corporate world thanks to patents secured for alien-derived photographic technologies. Having accrued this fabulous wealth, he returns to New Mexico to begin planning his escape from Earth, but his quest is quickly dragged wayward by his increasingly all-consuming addictions to television and alcohol and by a whirlwind romance with the unassuming Mary Lou (Candy Clark). Meanwhile, Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), the womanizing scientist that Newton’s company brings on board to develop spaceflight technology, becomes close with Newton and develops suspicions about his true identity.
Bowie’s performance is impressively commanding, given that this is his first starring film role (but then again, he was surely popular music’s most visual oriented star to date). Bowie came to the production in a state of despair after a couple years living in Los Angeles—“That fucking place should be wiped off the face of the earth,” he mused to the British music mag NME a few years later—and he would go on to record one of his bleakest and weirdest albums, Station to Station, immediately after filming wrapped. He famously claimed that he spent this period of his life surviving entirely on a diet of “red peppers, milk, and cocaine,” and the wiry body on display throughout the film both lends some credence to that proclamation and bolsters his otherworldly visual veneer. Perhaps, too, this existential crisis is responsible for the frayed and frigid perfection of Bowie’s performance, which is perfectly in sync with the film’s beautifully unhinged tone.
British director Roeg is at the peak of his powers here as well, coming on the heels of a string of masterful films like 1970’s Performance, 1971’s Walkabout, and 1973’s Don’t Look Now. His delirious and deft use of montage is the most vivid display of his distinctive formal prowess, especially in the film’s impressionistic sex scenes, where surrealism and naturalism coexist in a marvelously disorienting hodgepodge. Even more impressive, although subtler, is his incredibly careful and precise command of the film’s mise-en-scene; outfits, decor, light, and setting are arranged in unsettlingly lovely juxtapositions in seemingly every moment.
Shot and set largely in New Mexico (with a few startling digressions to New York’s gleaming skyscrapers), The Man Who Fell To Earth is largely a film about place, and Roeg draws a clever contrast between America’s fading landscape—both natural and cultural—and the dying ecosystem of Newton’s home planet. In this sense, the film is a fragmented, epic speculative western. There’s a quote, attributed (perhaps apocryphally) to Tolstoy, that declares, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” The Man Who Fell To Earth, immaculately, tells both stories as one: both alien and earthling come to seem simultaneously familiar and weird. Freud had a name for this uncomfortable coexistence of feelings—the unheimlich—and in this film, we find one of its most poignant, effective cinematic representations. It’s fitting, then, to find at the film’s center David Bowie, one of pop’s great purveyors and popularizers of the strange.