David Bowie wasn’t just a era-defining, genre-defying musician, but also an actor whose career could best be described as “eventful.” He didn’t appear in many movies, but, with a couple of exceptions (see: Everybody Loves Sunshine), his presence in a project was at least a guarantee that you wouldn’t be bored. When you’re not playing his albums this week, check out these Bowie-powered movies.
ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS (1973)
Bowie’s first major movie wasn’t one in which he acted. Instead, Ziggy was a concert movie and documentary by Don’t Look Back’s D.A. Pennebaker that captured the final concerts by Bowie’s glam rock alter ego, including his at-the-time shocking announcement that the final show of the tour was “the last show we’ll ever do.” An accidental snapshot of an unmistakably important moment in Bowie’s life.
THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)
While Bowie abandoned Ziggy musically, there’s more than a bit of old Mr. Stardust to be found in his portrayal of Thomas Jerome Newton, the eponymous alien who’s on Earth to bring water back to his increasingly desperate home world. Very much a product of its time, there’s something wonderfully off-kilter about the way the movie veers between melodrama and melancholy. Besides, any movie that co-stars Rip Torn, Buck Henry and Bowie has something going for it. Available from iTunes and Amazon Video
THE HUNGER (1983)
Speaking of movies that are very much of their time, Tony Scott’s The Hunger could not have been made at any other time than the early ‘80s, but it’s all the better for it — this heavily allegorical horror film — is it about AIDS? Is it about addiction? Yes and yes — remains an attention-grabber even three decades after its creation, with Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon bringing as much weird eroticism to the project as Bowie. Available from iTunes and Amazon Video
MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE (1983)
From the (wonderfully) ridiculous to the sublime, Bowie ditches much of his intentionally outré nature to play prisoner-of-war Jack Celliers in this quietly beautiful movie, with Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tom Conti and Takeshi providing understated backup. In previous outings, Bowie had come across as a star, but this is arguably the movie that convinced mainstream audiences that he was also an actor.
ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS (1986)
Arguing that Absolute Beginners is an overlooked masterpiece isn’t something that will convince many — the film was panned by critics and flopped in theaters — but there’s definitely a strange charm to its very 1980s recreation of a 1950s that never actually existed. Bowie is undoubtedly one of the high points of the movie as the wonderfully named Vendice Partners, but watch for Ray Davies of the Kinks popping up as “Father,” as well.
Apparently this is the go-to movie for many upon hearing of Bowie’s death, judging by social media. The role of the Goblin King let Bowie indulge a knowing camp that had lain dormant for far too long. As fun as it might be to watch a young Jennifer Connolly argue for the life of her baby brother, there was no way to watch this — as an adult or a child — and not find yourself wishing that the bad guy could win just this once. Available from iTunes and Amazon Video
TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992)
As with much in the confused prequel to David Lynch’s classic TV series, David Bowie’s character in Fire Walk With Me — Agent Philip Jeffries — is a narrative mess, coming in to hijack the movie temporarily when he returns from places unknown and brings warnings of BOB and the midget who talks backwards. But damn it if he doesn’t provide one of the most compelling detours in the movie. If only there had been an entire series about this guy. Available from iTunes and Amazon Video
Decades after writing a song about the artist, Bowie got to be Andy Warhol in this star-studded biopic from Julian Schnabel. Appearing alongside Bowie’s respectful, restrained Andy are Benicio del Toro, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Courtney Love, Parker Posey and Sam Rockwell. Even if you have no interest in the art scene, the cast alone makes this worth a watch. Available from Netflix and Amazon Video
EXTRAS: DAVID BOWIE (2006)
Bowie moved away from cinema as he got older, but he didn’t leave acting entirely, leading to this surprise appearance on Ricky Gervais’ post-Office sitcom, playing himself as he sings a heartfelt tribute to Gervais’ character: “He’s got no style, he’s got no grace / He’s banal and facile, he’s a waste of space.” Even when he’s being a jerk, he’s brilliant. Available from iTunes and Amazon Video
DAVID BOWIE: FIVE YEARS (2013)
Just as we started with a Bowie movie that isn’t an acting role, so we end. Five Years is an utterly fascinating look at — as the title suggests — five important years in Bowie’s musical career. Think of it as the unofficial sequel to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, or just a much-needed celebration of the career of one of the greatest pop musicians that ever lived. Available from Hulu and Amazon Video with Showtime subscription