Like the rest of the world, I woke up this morning to the impossibly sad news that David Bowie had died. He was so enduring and influential — ever-changing yet timeless — that it seems impossible he’s no longer here. Hell, my 6-year-old knows “Under Pressure” because it plays during the “Minions” trailer — that’s how wide-ranging Bowie’s cultural impact has been.
But his passing provides a great opportunity to reflect on a career so astounding, mere words don’t do it justice. I pondered doing a list about Bowie’s film performances as an actor; they are many and varied, ranging from starring roles in “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and “Labyrinth” to memorable supporting parts as Andy Warhol in “Basquiat” and, finally, himself in “Bandslam.” Instead, I got to thinking about how beautifully his songs have been used in films over the years. While the following five are in no particular order, the first one is my favorite. I hope these help you reflect fondly on this true genius and icon, as well.
“Starman” in “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” (2007). But I also could have mentioned the thrilling use of “Starman” this year in “The Martian.” By the time rock star Dewey Cox has reached borderline has-been stage with his own cheesy, ’70s variety show in “Walk Hard,” he’s striving desperately to remain hip and relevant. Who better to emulate than the eternally cool Bowie? John C. Reilly sells the schmaltz with complete sincerity, which is just the best. And the choreography is hilarious.
“Golden Years” in “A Knight’s Tale” (2001). Writer-director Brian Helgeland’s medieval comedy makes slyly anachronistic use of this funky Bowie tune during a crucial scene. A sexy and vibrant Heath Ledger, as a peasant trying to convince the crowd at a ball that he’s actually a knight, busts out some dance moves to prove he’s cultured. Bowie’s music provides the perfect accompaniment.
“Moonage Daydream” in “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014). I wish I could find this clip. It’s just not out there online. But in case you’re one of the few people who’ve never seen this enormously crowd-pleasing Marvel blockbuster, just trust me. James Gunn chose just the right song as part of his excellent, ’70s-era soundtrack for the moment when the team arrives in the massive, intergalactic crossroads of Knowhere. It just sounds big, and it’s the perfect tune thematically and tonally.
“Modern Love” in “Frances Ha” (2012). It’s a song you’ve heard a million times. It’s one of Bowie’s most poppy and accessible. But Noah Baumbach breathes new life into it in this intimate, New York comedy. As the aimless title character, Greta Gerwig finally finds purpose here as she runs, twirls and jetes down the street. The use of black and white makes it classic. The energy of the song makes it immediate.
All the Bowie songs in “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” (2004). This is not my favorite Wes Anderson movie — that would be “Rushmore” — but his use of music is always inspired. Here, he put a bossa nova twist on Bowie classics including “Changes” and “Life on Mars” by having Brazilian star Seu Jorge perform them poignantly in Portuguese, functioning as a sort of Greek chorus. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” works particularly well, both for the power of the performance and the way Anderson shoots it.