In 1975, just as David Bowie had achieved breakthrough success, he was simultaneously teetering on the verge of a nervous breakdown. A re-issued single of “Space Oddity” was No. 1 in the U.K., and he scored his first No. 1 single in the States with “Fame,” while also cracking the top five with “Young Americans.” Yet the pressure of constant touring and recording, along with his failing marriage and a massive cocaine habit all pointed towards the abyss. “I’ve rocked my roll,” he said in an interview with Playboy magazine in April of that year. “There will be no more rock ‘n’ roll records or tours from me. The last thing I want to be is some useless f——— rock singer.”
It was at precisely this point in time that director Nicolas Roeg cast Bowie for his film “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” which got him off the coke and inspired Bowie to create what many regard as his greatest album. Forty years after it was first released, and in the wake of Bowie’s death earlier this year, the full, 139-minute director’s cut of “The Man Who Fell to Earth” is back for one final encore. It remains one of the ’70s’ strangest and most captivating films.
Based on the 1963 sci-fi novel by Walter Tevis, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” is about a humanoid alien (Bowie) who travels to Earth from a drought-stricken planet. Passing himself off as human inventor Thomas Jerome Newton, he builds an Apple-like tech firm while secretly planning to develop a spacecraft to transport water back to his own dying planet and family. Newton keeps a low profile but becomes fantastically wealthy through his patents and attracts the attention of the security services. His plans thwarted, he despairs and becomes a Howard Hughes-like recluse, numbed by alcohol and TV. He finally records an album of electronic music, which, transmitted through radio waves, he hopes may someday reach his planet.
Roeg, for his part, was coming off a string of innovative post-hippie films — such as “Walkabout” and “Don’t Look Now” — which brought a new, fractured sensibility to film editing, eroding linearity and embracing dream-like elements and jarring sexuality. He had worked with a rock star before — Mick Jagger in 1968’s “Performance” — but that was for a rock-star role. “I didn’t want an “actor,” said Roeg in Uncut magazine, “but someone who had the possibility of being unique.”
He had been considering Peter O’Toole and, surprisingly, author Michael Crichton (whose over 2-meter-tall frame was strikingly non-ordinary), but actress Candy Clark — who was sleeping with Roeg at the time — pushed for Bowie.
Roeg wasn’t keen until he saw “Cracked Actor,” Alan Yentob’s BBC documentary about Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour in America. Then he knew he had his Thomas Newton. The doc, notorious to this day, shows a pale, stick-insect Bowie, utterly fragile and bewildered as he cruises down American highways, sipping milk in the back of his limo. (It was so perfect, in fact, that limo sequence was re-created in the film.)
Bowie leaped at the chance. “I’d been offered a couple of scripts,” he has often been quoted as saying, “but I chose this one because it was the only one where I didn’t have to sing or look like David Bowie.” Bowie was truly breaking ground here; unlike The Beatles or Elvis, he was set to appear in a movie role that didn’t require his stage persona, although casting Ziggy Stardust as an extra-terrestrial wasn’t that much of a stretch.
“The Man Who Fell to Earth” was ultimately a film about alienation, and that sense of feeling out of place — of having to hide who you were — appealed to Bowie’s state of mind. His older half-brother, Terry, had schizophrenia and was committed in the late ’60s and Bowie never shook the fear that he might someday meet the same fate. Commenting in Uncut magazine about Bowie’s role in the film, Roeg tellingly noted how “it struck me how short a time it was since people with autism or cerebral damage were considered lunatics and chained to fences.”
Add to this brew the drug-induced paranoia and constant image changes and you get an incredible performance.
“Just being me … was perfectly adequate for the role,” Bowie told Rolling Stone some years later. “I wasn’t of this Earth at that particular time … . I just learned the lines for (each) day, and did them the way I was feeling. It was a pretty natural performance, a good exhibition of somebody literally falling apart in front of you.”
Roeg, Clark and several others insist that Bowie had agreed to go cold turkey during the filming, although he was definitely back on the blow soon enough while recording “Station to Station.” (Bowie famously said, “I know that album was recorded in LA because I read it was.”)
Bowie also began work on an instrumental soundtrack for the film but Roeg turned it down, instead commissioning a soundtrack from John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas. Certainly the banjo and slide guitar Americana fits with the Southwest desert locale where Newton resides, but the more ethereal sections are lacking.
After the “Station to Station” tour finished, Bowie wound up retreating to a studio in a French chateau, where he cleaned up. Working with producer Brian Eno and recording in the dead of night, Bowie — still very much in the mindset of Newton — continued to try and realize the otherworldly, melancholic instrumental music he’d imagined for the film. A few months later, Roeg would open his mail and find a new album from Bowie, with a still from the movie as its cover, and a note saying, “This is what I wanted to do with the soundtrack.”
That album was “Low,” a radical departure for Bowie that remains one of his defining works.
“The Man Who Fell to Earth” is showing at selected cinemas in Japan from July 16 and is set for general release later in the year.
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