Bowie the actor -- the star who fell to Earth

11th January 2016, Comments 0 comments

As a pop star who gloried in creating fictional characters like Major Tom and Ziggy Stardust, it was perhaps inevitable that David Bowie would also end up in the movies.

But with so few happy precedents of singers turning their hand to acting, few would have predicted the impact Bowie made when he appeared in Nicolas Roeg's stunning "The Man who Fell to Earth" in 1976.

The sci-fi story of a extraterrestrial played by Bowie who crash lands on Earth -- in more than a nod to Bowie's earlier creation Ziggy -- has since become a cult cinema classic.

For that debut performance alone, British film critic Jonathan Romney said Bowie deserves to be remembered as an actor who could bring "an extraordinary presence to the screen.

"His performance was almost bigger than the film itself," he told AFP.

"Bowie brought with him this alien presence from an alien world which gave what was already an extraordinary film something that took it to another level.

"I don't think he would have argued that what we saw there wasn't a self-portrait."

He said that later films that Bowie starred in such as prisoner-of-war drama "Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence" (1983) showed he could also be a "solid actor", but that he was always best when playing a "kind of Brechtian troubador, with a dash of Kurt Weil and Jacques Brel."

- 'Genuinely freaky' -

But French cinema historian Jean-Michel Frodon argued that Bowie's performance in Nagisa Oshima's story of British soldiers in a Japanese prisoner of war camp is hugely underrated.

"It is a real leading role and he was asked to play a character and not a version of himself, which is quite rare" when you look at the rest of his film career, he said.

Romney admitted that Bowie may have done "too many good-natured cameos" even if his walk-on role in "Twin Peak: Fire Walk with Me" was "genuinely freaky".

"However, too many directors used him almost as a found object to embody a superficial idea of glamour and mystery," he said.

For Ryan Gilbey of Britain's New Statesman magazine -- a self-confessed diehard Bowie fan -- there is no getting round the baggage he brought to the screen.

"With the exception of his mesmerising lead role in 'The Man Who Fell to Earth', in which it was generally assumed he was playing himself (an alien), his acting work had not been universally loved," he wrote Monday.

"He could never shake his essential Bowie-ness and disappear into a part, but that was precisely what made his acting work so eerily commanding when the match between him and the part was exact."

Nevertheless, like Romney, he was full of praise for Bowie's performance playing the Serbian-born inventor Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan's thriller "The Prestige" (2006).

- Wasting his potential -

Philippe Rouyer, film critic of the French magazine Positif, said cinema was guilty of wasting Bowie's huge potential. "He really had the capacity to do a lot more, and cinema only used a tiny bit of his talent."

Bowie, however, did provide the soundtrack for several films, including mostly memorably for Christiane F. (1981), the story of a child prostitute and drug addict as well as for the British film "Absolute Beginners".

But he refused, however, to allow the American director Todd Haynes to use his music in his 1998 film "Velvet Goldmine", the nearest thing there has been to a Bowie biopic.

The singer's verdict on the film was damning. "He got the gay stuff right," he said, "but he can't do story."

© 2016 AFP

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