David Bowie on Film: 25 Unforgettable Onscreen Moments – Rolling Stone
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David Bowie: 25 of Artist’s Most Unforgettable Onscreen Moments

Five decades of star turns and innovative clips from rock’s ultimate video artist

No artist used video as creatively as David Bowie – the cracked actor redefined the idea of interpreting music for the camera. Before MTV existed, he did more than anyone else to invent the music video – and then pushed its boundaries as far as they could go. He took his film career more seriously than other rock singers did, building up a unique body of cinematic work. And his fantastic voyage through 50 years of pop culture took him all over TV, appearing everywhere from morning chat shows to live festivals. From a lifetime in front of the camera, here are 25 of Bowie’s most unforgettable onscreen moments.

“Oh! You Pretty Things” on ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ (1972)

A live clip from 1972, for the BBC program The Old Grey Whistle Test. The young Bowie sits down at the piano to sing this Hunky Dory ballad, straddling the bench in a jumpsuit with the front buttons undone. He already seems otherworldly, staring into the camera with his disarming off-color eyes. Nobody knew yet how far out he was planning to get.

“Starman” on ‘Top of the Pops’ (1972)

The legendary Top of the Pops performance of July 6th, 1972 – the moment when Bowie truly became Bowie. He strums a blue acoustic guitar, with crimson hair, a rainbow spacesuit and astronaut boots, casually draping an arm around Mick Ronson. In less than four minutes, he went from a plodding folkie to England's most scandalous rock sensation. Virtually every kid who watched this clip went on to start a band. 

“John, I’m Only Dancing” (1972)

A low-budget goof directed by Mick Rock before there was any such thing as rock videos. Bowie struts with neon-orange rooster hair, a leather jacket, red nail polish, false eyelashes and an anchor tattoo on his cheek that screams "Hello, sailor!" The dancers from Lindsay Kemp's mime troupe got this banned from Top of the Pops for being too risqué.

“The Jean Genie” (1973)

A little bump-and-grind with Cyrinda Foxe, the ultimate New York Bowie girl of the early Seventies – as Bowie put it, "a consort of the Marilyn brand." The platinum-blond Miss Foxe was later married to both Steven Tyler and David Johansen, but she's beloved by Bowie fans as the muse who taught him how to shop for shoes, tutoring him in the art of wearing "palm-tree'd fuck-me pumps."

“Life on Mars?” (1973)

Another Mick Rock video, put together when the 1971 ballad became a belated U.K. hit. Bowie doesn't need any props or band: The sad-eyed spaceboy performs alone on a white screen, in a long turquoise suit, red lipstick and way too much blue eye shadow. The colors seem to change as the music gets sadder and sadder.

“I Got You Babe” on ‘The 1980 Floor Show’ (1973)

Bowie outdid himself spectacle-wise for his American TV special The 1980 Floor Show. For the big finale, he donned a red vinyl corset with black feathers to sing a Sonny and Cher duet with Marianne Faithfull, who was dressed as a nun. As Bowie recalled, "Because of her convent background, I felt Marianne would carry the moment superbly as a nun, albeit without a back panel to her habit, revealing her splendid arse." Alas, American TV wasn't ready to permit a glimpse of Sister Faithfull from behind.

“Footstompin'” on ‘The Dick Cavett Show’ (1974)

An absurdly wasted-looking Bowie visits the talk show to introduce his new soul band. He also sits down for a chat, sniffling, twirling his cane and mumbling incoherent coke babble at his terrified host. He revs up the R&B oldie "Footstompin'" with a fierce dance cameo from girlfriend Ava Cherry – though she seems like a bit of a workout for a man in Bowie's condition.

‘Cracked Actor’ (1975)

Alan Yentob's BBC documentary of Bowie on tour in America, still shocking in its candid portrait of a dazed artist lost in showbiz madness. The most indelible scene: Bowie in the back of his limo, riding through the desert, singing along to Aretha Franklin on the radio while gulping from a carton of milk. "There's a fly floating around in my milk," Bowie says. "That's kind of how I felt [in America]: a foreign body, and I couldn't help but soak it up."

“Young Americans” on ‘Cher’ (1975)

Two of the Seventies' grooviest divas meet for a TV duet on Cher's variety show – possibly the most bizarre moment of either artist's career. Their hip-swinging rendition of "Young Americans" swerves into a chaotic oldies medley, with Bowie dropping to his knees to serenade Cher with the Chantels' doo-wop classic "Maybe." David does not look well, yet this is still brilliant. 

“Golden Years” on ‘Soul Train’ (1975)

It must have looked like a historic occasion – the whitest man ever invited onto Soul Train. First Bowie mutters at the floor until a worried-looking Don Cornelius says, "OK, David, I think we have to move on." Then he twitches his way through "Golden Years," even though he can't remember the words. "I hadn't bothered to learn it," Bowie confessed later. 

‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ (1976)

His most famous film role – inspired when director Nicolas Roeg saw the Cracked Actor documentary on TV and realized he'd found the perfect guy to play a Martian stranded in America. "My one snapshot memory I have of that film is not having to act," Bowie said in 1993. "I wasn't of this Earth at that particular time."

“Stay” on ‘Dinah!’ (1976)

The return of the Thin White Duke – Bowie never moved better, strutting his stuff to "Stay" in an electric-blue outfit and giving American housewives a preview of his astounding new funk band on Dinah Shore's daytime talk show. He's also pure charm inthe interview, even in a bit when he gets karate lessons. Shore's other guests that morning – 1970s TV stars Nancy Walker and Henry Winkler – give Bowie a chance to gush politely, "I'm a great fan of Fonzie." 

“Heroes” on ‘Musikladen’ (1978)

Every time Bowie sang "Heroes" was a special occasion – but none more than this version for the German TV show Musikladen, filmed in front of a tiny studio audience in Bremen. The whole 40-minute performance is Berlin-era Bowie hitting a career peak in terms of his vocal daring, his musicians, his sheer soul power. Not to mention his ability to look cool in high-waisted baggy leather pantaloons. 

“Boys Keep Swinging” (1979)

Bowie makes a bold gender-bending move into the still-nascent area of the rock video with director David Mallet. It turns into a drag ball, where Bowie parades down the catwalk in a variety of feminine guises, saying good night as a stern old Marlene Dietrich dowager who blows a kiss to the camera. 

“The Man Who Sold the World” on ‘Saturday Night Live’ (1979)

Bowie raised the standard for what musicians could try to get away with on SNL, teaming with performance artists Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias for avant-wacko routines involving marionettes, drag, toy dogs, Dada costumes – and Bowie as a puppet toted around by his backup singers.

“Ashes to Ashes” (1980)

One of the Eighties' scariest horror movies, a four-minute slide show of fragmented identities, with Bowie on the beach in a clown suit, locked in a padded cell, strapped to a dentist's chair and chained in a fish tank. The Bowie Pierrot marches in front of a bulldozer along with black-robed figures recruited from London's New Romantic scene – including Visage singer Steve Strange.

“China Girl” (1983)

Bowie had MTV on lock during his Let's Dance phase, with a string of Mallet-helmed videos – most splashingly, this satire of the delusions and dangers of sexual obsession. Actress Geeling Ng stars as the object of desire whom Bowie can only see in terms of his own masks. It climaxes in an extended sex scene on the beach – censored by MTV, which didn't care to display Bowie's ass, God-given or not. 

‘The Hunger’ (1983)

His infamous vampire flick with Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon. (Why, yes, the ladies do make out. How did you guess?) The opening six minutes are the highlight of Bowie's sporadic film career – he and Deneuve cruise a goth club while Bauhaus play "Bela Lugosi's Dead," prowling for some nubile human flesh to suck dry. Stevie Nicks recently called The Hunger a favorite moment of Bowie's career – "just creepy and strange and amazingly beautiful."

“Blue Jean” (1984)

A slapstick romp excerpted from Julien Temple's 21-minute film Jazzin' for Blue Jean. Bowie plays two roles: the luminous rock star in harem pants and the dork in the audience whose girl only has eyes for the rock star. And in the role of Bowie's bassist: That's Richard Fairbrass, later the Right Said Fred singer of "I'm Too Sexy" fame. 

“Dancing in the Street” (1985)

This face-to-face dance-off with Mick Jagger is one of the weirdest moments in MTV history. Crashing out the video in one big all-nighter, the two prize peacocks of rock & roll battle shamelessly to upstage each other, hilariously parodying each other's dance moves. (Oh, those jazz hands.) At dawn, they do one final ass-shake. Call it a tie.

‘Labyrinth’ (1986)

Believe it or not, Bowie was widely mocked in 1986 when he took on the role of the Goblin King in Jim Henson's kiddie movie. It looked like the final indignity. But Bowie had the last laugh, because Labyrinth became his Yellow Submarine – the gateway drug that keeps introducing him to new generations of young fans.

“I’m Afraid of Americans” (1997)

A fascinating artifact from Bowie's most low-profile era, the Nineties. He plays an ordinary guy walking around New York – except he's chased across town by Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, who's wearing a Taxi Driver-style Army jacket and hasn't washed his hair since The Downward Spiral. An eerily impressive showcase for both stars.

‘Zoolander’ (2001)

That's right – it's a walk-off. Bowie naturally steals the show in the classic Ben Stiller-Owen Wilson comedy. When model Derek Zoolander challenges his archrival Hansel to settle their disputes on the runway with a walk-off, all they need is an expert judge. Guess who magically shows up ready to volunteer? They're just lucky he doesn't join the battle – because nobody could ever out-pose Bowie. 

“The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” (2013)

The key video in his historic comeback with The Next Day. After years out of the public eye, he returns playing half of a quiet suburban couple, with Bowie look-alike Tilda Swinton as his wife. Best moment: Bowie pounds on the wall of the Bowie clone next door who plays his music too loud.

“Lazarus” (2016)

An intensely moving clip – even before we knew it was his goodbye to the world he changed in so many ways. It's full of unforgettable images: Bowie in a sickbed, eyes bandaged, singing, "I've got scars that can't be seen"; Bowie writing at his desk, fighting to stay upright. Bowie wobbling across the floor and locking himself inside the cupboard. "Lazarus" would become a haunting farewell from an artist who never stopped looking for new ways to surprise and challenge us.

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