Sound + Vision: 12 Great David Bowie Soundtrack Cuts
David Bowie's contributions to the film world are both essential and well documented (check out our list of his best screen roles), but his pop culture presence was simply too immense to be confined to just the movies in which he appeared. Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, Aladdin Sane and the other fragments of his infinite persona have provided the soundtracks of our lives for more than 40 years, and have sporadically contributed to the soundtracks of our films for almost as many. From space operas to medieval jousting movies, Bowie songs have never felt out of place on a soundtrack. His music was as malleable as the man who wrote it, and the best of his tracks will never lose their inexplicable power to make the alien feel ordinary, and the ordinary feel alien.
There are very few films that wouldn't be made better by the right Bowie song, or even the wrong one. For the vast majority of his working life, however, Bowie was unfortunately — if understandably — reluctant to lend his music to other artists. It wasn't until the Nineties, when the Man Who Sold the World also found the smartest way to license it, that Bowie softened his stance. Predicting that technology was going to permanently reshape the music industry and annihilate the value of pre-existing copyright laws, Bowie realized that "Authorship and intellectual property is in for a bashing," and decided not to get in its way. As a result, the last two decades have seen a sharp uptick in the number of movies that have been graced with his voice.
So, with a slight emphasis on the last 20 years (and disqualifying the songs that he wrote, but didn't sing — all apologies, "Lust for Life"), we've cued up the 12 best Bowie music moments in movie history. Prepare for the best in sound + vision.
‘Inglourious Basterds’ (“Cat People”)
Quentin Tarantino is known for his music cues (among other things), but the one he used Bowie for is among his very best. It ignites the blazing climax of his 2009 revisionist WWII film, with the seductive drums and synths of "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" — itself a commissioned cut for the soundtrack of Paul Schrader's 1982 animalistic thriller — providing the background as Jewish cinema owner Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent) stares out her window while dusk falls on Nazi Germany's final night. The song's lyrics ("And I've been putting out fire / with gasoline!") provide a hint as to what she has in store for Hitler later that evening. As students of history, we fully expect her to fail. But — like Bowie himself — Shoshanna is only interested in a future of her own design.
‘The Life Aquatic’ (“Life on Mars”)
Wes Anderson's waterlogged fourth film is absolutely swimming in David Bowie tunes, almost all of which are filtered through the voice of Brazilian musician Seu Jorge. Only twice does Anderson swap out Jorge's acoustic covers for the real deals, and the director makes sure that both of those moments have enough heft to earn their royalty fees. Layering "Queen Bitch" over the triumphant final shot sends the movie out on a high note, but "Life on Mars" — expertly deployed as stoned oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) stands on the bow of his ship and silently absorbs the bombshell revelation that he has a son — tells us just how much his mind has been blown.
‘Grosse Point Blank’ (“Under Pressure”)
For most of us, there's no pressure in life greater than that which we put on ourselves. For those of us who are contract killers in the midst of a moral crisis prompted by our 10-year high school reunion, that pressure is off the charts. And so it was for Martin Blank (John Cusack), whose homicidal working life was turned upside down the moment he looked into the eyes of a former classmate's infant son while David Bowie's (and Freddie Mercury's) voice spoke to him through the sound system: "It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about / Watching some good friends / Screaming 'Let me out!'" Bowie has always had a unique way of getting through to people, so it’s no surprise that Martin soon finds himself saving lives instead of ending them.
‘Mauvais Sang’ (“Modern Love”)
The premise of French director Leos Carax's 1986 feature sounds like it was borrowed from one of Bowie's concept albums: In a bizarro future Paris, a deadly new disease is killing youths who have sex without any emotional connection. Alex (Denis Lavant) and his boss' girlfriend, Anna (Juliette Binoche), are holed up in a tiny apartment one night, when he flicks on the radio: "Let's listen to it and let it guide our feelings." When the DJ announces that the next song will be "Modern Love," Alex launches into one of the most irrepressible scenes in movie history, Levant's flailing body articulating the ineffable effect of Bowie's music. The scene so perfectly speaks to the power of being young and alive that Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig would copy it wholesale for Frances Ha almost 30 years later. The definition of love is always changing. Bowie, however, remains eternal.
‘Dogville’ (“Young Americans”)
Lars von Trier has always had a thing for David Bowie ("Life on Mars" introduces the stunning final chapter of Breaking the Waves), but — in true Von Trier fashion — his best Bowie moment arrives when you least expected it. A scathing three-hour allegory about the roots of American iniquity, Dogville is set inside a black box theater where tape on the floor is used to represent everything from houses to pets. It builds to a head-scratching eruption of violence until — just before the audience can start murmuring — those smooth saxophones from "Young Americans" comes crashes in, their bouncy soul tempo juxtaposed against images of America at its worst. Just like that, the film's severe minimalism finally lets you in on the joke, forcing you to smile and daring you to laugh. How many musicians had the power to completely transform a film even after it had already ended?
‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ (“‘Heroes'”)
What movie wouldn't kill to blare "'Heroes'" at just the right moment? In the age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it's hard to imagine too many blockbusters that wouldn't benefit from layering Bowie's single over their climactic battles. But leave it to this 2012 lovelorn coming-of-age story to strip the quotation marks off the title of the song and mine the classic track for the sincerity that the singer wasn't willing to afford it. Forget irony — these small-town misfits from the Pittsburgh suburbs have never even heard the immortal track before it comes to them over the radio during a fateful night drive, Bowie's voice riding a wall of sound strong enough to plow through the rubble of the Berlin Wall and reach the new generation of teenage outcasts who were waiting for it on the other side.
‘Absolute Beginners’ (“That’s Motivation”)
Playing Vendice Partners, an ad exec who sells people their own imaginations in Julien Temple's 1986 ode to U.K. youth culture, Bowie is part Don Draper and part Willy Wonka. "You fall for reality," he chides at the height of his show-stopping performance of "That's Motivation," which lets Bowie dance on everything from the keys of a massive typewriter to the top of a spinning globe; it's the perfect staging for a man who was always larger than life. "Why am I so exciting?" He sings. "What makes me so dramatic?" We're still trying to figure that out.
‘A Knight’s Tale’ (“Golden Years”)
Set in the 14th century but full of rock songs that were written 600 years later, this cheeky Heath Ledger vehicle about a medieval jousting tournament doesn't earn its gimmick — until Bowie proves how crucial the music really is. Ledger plays a squire who's pretending to be a noble, and it looks like the jig is up when he attends a stuffy court dance and doesn't know any of the proper moves. Fortunately for him, the royal DJ apparently has Station to Station on vinyl, and the night melts into a funky get-down as "Golden Years" begins to waft from the room's old walls. It isn't long before our hero and his well-born crush have found the perfect groove — whether in 1975 or 1375, Bowie has always been the sound of a new generation learning how to take the lead.
‘Labyrinth’ (“Magic Dance”)
Could anyone have fit into Jim Henson's world more seamlessly than David Bowie? It's a delirious joy to watch his Joreth the Goblin King step into a kingdom of puppet monsters and immediately assume his seat on the throne. The film's signature sequence, in which Bowie leads his flailing minions in a song that's about nothing more than the joy of watching them sing it, finds Joreth capturing the same power as Ziggy Stardust. Weird, threatening, and deeply lovable, "Magic Dance" is enough to make you overlook the fact that the Goblin King is obsessed with making a pubescent Jennifer Connelly into his Goblin Queen.
‘Lost Highway’ (“I’m Deranged”)
For a singular artist, Bowie was a reliably brilliant collaborator, possessed with a rare knack for helping other people make sense of their own muses. So it's no surprise that David Lynch, who had previously cast the musician as an actor in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, used one of the musician's songs as an on-ramp to his mind-fuck noir. Playing over the opening credits, the erratic 1995 track "I'm Deranged" serves as a tunnel between the waking world and the subterranean darkness of Lynch's imagination. Who better than Bowie to guide us to places we'd otherwise be afraid to go?
‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ (“Moonage Daydream”)
According to James Gunn, the director of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's most unabashedly intergalactic adventure: "You can't have a Seventies-infused space flick and not include Ziggy Stardust." The man has a point. Guardians of the Galaxy was perhaps the riskiest chapter of Earth's most profitable superhero saga, as the film was tasked with selling Marvel's broad movie audience on a sci-fi story in which the heroes include a machine-gun toting raccoon and a monosyllabic alien tree. Cue David Bowie, who bridged the gap between squares and extraterrestrial beings better than anyone who ever lived. The song kicks in just as the Guardians prepare to enter a place called Knowhere and the film gets ready to really let its freak flag fly. As Bowie's voice instructs us to "Freak out in a moonage daydream, oh yeah," it's as if he's giving us permission to sit back and enjoy the trip.
‘The Martian’ (“Star Man”)
Sometimes, the best way to use a song is to apply it as literally as possible. That tactic works wonders for Ridley Scott's blockbuster slice of sci-fi about astronaut Matt Damon being stranded on Mars with little more than some hot ABBA jams and a bunch of potatoes he fertilized with his own feces. So why is the movie such a blast to watch? In part, it's because Scott leans on music to illustrate how modern science is starting to fulfill the dreams of our fictions. To bring the point home, he enlists Earth's favorite alien to croon alongside a montage of NASA preparing to rescue a man from a distant planet: "There's a starman waiting in the sky / He told us not to blow it / 'Cause he knows it's all worthwhile." A little too on the nose? Maybe. Effective nonetheless? Yes.