When David Bowie passed away this past Sunday, the world did not lose just a man; we lost one of the most accomplished and brilliant people to have ever fallen to earth. A talented performer, an innovative musician, and a dynamic human being, Bowie was a figure whose presence seemingly defied time and space. His music, a fiercely compelling mix of pop and rock, cut deep into the soul and made you want to celebrate being alive. The news of his departure was devastating, and we could only feel so lucky as to have been blessed with his impeccable legacy of greatest hits and performances. He may be gone, but will never be forgotten, and as long as art continues to thrive Bowie will forever be an inspiration to us all.
And perhaps there’s no greater inspiration than a director’s decision to add a David Bowie song to their film’s soundtrack. At the very least, Bowie could elevate a film’s status from “shit” to “alright,” but when used appropriately, it could help transcend the medium entirely. So, to commemorate David Bowie’s imprint on pop culture, I have opted to select the most memorable uses of the Thin White Duke on film, and believe me, this was no easy task. Bowie has had songs appear in everything from Clueless to Wes Anderson, and all would be valid options, but I’m choosing five that have resonated most with me. As another stipulation, I am not selecting films where Bowie produced songs exclusively for the soundtrack (sorry, Labyrinth fans).
Without further ado, here are the five essential uses of David Bowie songs in film.
WHEN I LIVE MY DREAM - BOY MEETS GIRL (Dir. Leos Carax)
This is not the only film by Leos Carax to feature a David Bowie track (more on that in a minute), but it was his first, and by laying Bowie’s “When I Live My Dream” over the film’s centerpiece, it becomes the highlight of the entire endeavor. The film follows two lonely people (Mireille Perrier and Carax regular Denis Lavant), both freshly dumped and rejected by the world, as they attempt to find solace in the little things that used to make them happy (he with his walkman, she with her tap-dancing), and Bowie soars over all of it. It’s a stylishly crafted sequence, and firmly established Carax as a talent to watch when it came to blending stunningly gorgeous images with memorable soundtrack choices.
UNDER PRESSURE - GROSSE POINT BLANK (Dir. George Armitage)
Grosse Point Blank is a delightful film: it’s smartly written, agreeably performed, and of course, it features some killer tunes. The film stars John Cusack as Martin Q. Blank, a hitman who returns to his hometown of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, to attend his ten year high school reunion and face the woman (Minnie Driver) he stood up at the prom a decade prior. Along the way he’s dodging fellow assassins, contract killers, and government agents to make it to the reunion in one piece. The film moves along briskly and the soundtrack contains many hits of the 80’s, but the entire production culminates into one beautiful sequence where Blank, running into a fellow classmate at the reunion, stares into the eyes of her newborn infant and discovers another side to life he had been missing this entire time. This moment is tender and wholly life-affirming (name a better baby on film, I dare ya!), and made all the more meaningful by the dulcet tones David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” (featuring Queen).
CAT PEOPLE - INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (Dir. Quentin Tarantino)
A David Bowie song appearing in a film set during World War II would make about as much sense as a David Bowie song appearing in a film set during World War II. Unless your film’s director is named Quentin Tarantino, of course. Tarantino has always had a knack for groovy soundtrack cuts, yet it’s his revisionist masterpiece Inglourious Basterds that features the cream of the crop. Utilizing Bowie’s “Cat People” as the backdrop of avenging angel Shosanna’s (Melanie Laurent) murderous scheming, Tarantino works wonders here, and Bowie swells in all the right places, acutely expressing the raging fury and look of determination in Shosanna’s eyes as she plots to blow up her own movie theatre and eliminate Hitler’s Third Reich. It’s the great fist-bump moment of Tarantino’s career.
I’M DERANGED - LOST HIGHWAY (Dir. David Lynch)
An incredible solo artist in his own right, Bowie also enjoyed many successes as a collaborative artist, and perhaps one of his more memorable pairings was with David Lynch. Bowie (who also had a small role in Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me) lends his “I’m Deranged” to the opening title sequence of Lynch’s Lost Highway, and the results could not be more perfect. Featuring a car barreling down a darkened, endless highway at nightmarish speeds, Bowie’s vocals are utterly haunting here, and it perfectly sets the mood for the rest of Lynch’s film to come.
MODERN LOVE - MAUVAIS SANG (Dir. Leos Carax) and FRANCES HA (Dir. Noah Baumbach)
This may appear to be a bit of a cheat, as I’ve included two films here, but I could not write about one without featuring the other other. Mauvais Sang (French: “Bad Blood”) is the second Leos Carax film to make this list, and features perhaps the greatest use of David Bowie ever. Set in a dystopian France where people can contract an AIDS-like virus if they make love to someone without expressing feelings for them, Bowie shows up halfway through, when young lead Alex (Lavant) hears “Modern Love” play on the radio and, in an amazingly cathartic moment, proceeds to run, jump and cartwheel his heart out down the empty city streets. The ecstasy does not last long, but it’s an indelible and mesmerizing sequence in a wonderful film that perfectly captures that feeling of what it’s like to fall in love. Baumbauch’s Frances Ha pays a direct homage to this sequence with Greta Gerwig running down the streets of New York, except here it’s a more joyous affair, bolstered by the exuberance of the young lead’s cheery performance. The contrast with Mauvais Sang is apparent but the sequence is no less meaningful. Take a look at both below: