Like many Chicagoans, I’m eagerly looking forward to the David Bowie exhibit that opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art later this month. I’m also excited about the upcoming Doc Films series (copresented by the MCA) of movies featuring Bowie, which occupies the second Thursday-night slot on Doc’s fall calendar. Bowie’s records have always exhibited strong affinities with cinema. Many of them center on Bowie playing a different character (Ziggy Stardust, the soulless soul man of Young Americans and Station to Station), and the production often suggests a sonic equivalent to cinematic spectacle, conjuring up specific environments (like the futuristic noir landscape of Outside) or guiding the listener through little narratives.
And of course the cinema has long taken a shine to Bowie. Even in films in which he doesn’t appear, Bowie plays an important role in establishing mood or invoking a particular cultural legacy. Over the next several months, I’ll be writing about various points at which Bowie and cinema intersect, since many of them will appear on screens around town. I’d like to avoid the obvious examples (Man Who Fell to Earth, Labyrinth), at least for a while, since much of the fun of following Bowie’s career lies in being surprised by where it goes.
For instance I didn’t expect that Bowie would factor into the recent romantic comedy Words and Pictures (one of the year’s most underrated films, incidentally). “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” a standout track from Bowie’s The Next Day, plays over a pivotal sequence that reveals new layers of sadness and desperation in Clive Owen’s high school English teacher. In this sequence Owen spends a night drinking alone in his house, his behavior growing more reckless as he gets progressively drunker. The song suits the action remarkably well. For one thing, it really sounds like something a middle-aged, washed-up poet teaching at an elite prep school would listen to. The production, like that of every Bowie record from Hours onward, has an adult-contemporary sheen that makes the music easy on the ears, while the presence of Bowie keeps a certain hipness quotient intact.
“Stars” is much sadder and more bitter than the sonic palette first suggests. A lovely metaphor, the stars in the song represent unshakable memories of people we’ve known who are now dead. “Their jealousy’s spilling down” is one refrain. One exceptional quality of The Next Day is that Bowie sounds more vulnerable here than he’s allowed himself to sound on most of his albums—it’s a record about confronting death just before you lose the energy to rail against it. This theme first becomes apparent on “Stars” (the album’s third track) somewhere around the halfway mark, when the first traces of anger and regret can be heard in Bowie’s performance. It sounds as though the vocals are trying to break free of the song’s steady, albeit comforting groove.
This effect mirrors the dramatic content of that scene in Words and Pictures. When Owen’s character reaches peak inebriation he starts playing racquetball against the outside—and then inside—walls of his house, not caring whether he breaks anything. The wild action provides an exciting change of pace in this supremely talky film, yet it also introduces Owen’s self-destructive streak, which all but gets the better of him in the second half. Come to think of it, there’s something Bowie-esque about the movie’s unexpected turn from light comedy to domestic tragedy.