Friday, February 9, 2018

Rocket Man: On David Bowie’s Fall to Earth

Elon Musk, a canny combo of Thomas Edison and P.T. Barnum, has done it again. His SpaceX has just launched from Cape Canaveral the Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful operational rocket. The biggest news for science geeks is that two of the three Falcon first-stage rocket boosters were successfully returned to earth, to be reused in future. But the rest of us are probably more keen on the rocket’s payload: Musk’s own cherry-red Tesla, complete with a helmeted dummy in the driver’s seat. And, yes, the car’s audio system was said to be blasting out David Bowie’s “ Space Oddity.”  Ground Control to Major Tom, indeed!

It’s a lovely coincidence that I’ve just finished reading my colleague Susan Compo’s new Earthbound: David Bowie and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Susan’s book gave me the opportunity to explore the 1976 Nicolas Roeg film that some cinéastes remember with affection, some with puzzlement, others with major annoyance. To my surprise, I learned that the film’s source novel is by Walter Tevis, far better known for a much more down-to-earth work, The Hustler. That novel, of course, inspired the award-winning 1961 classic in which Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, and George C. Scott risk their souls in a pool hall. Though The Man Who Fell to Earth contains undeniable science fiction elements, it shares with The Hustler Tevis’s interest in men  (whether earthly or from outer space) who destroy themselves through excess. The otherworldly character played by Bowie -- an alien confined to earth because he can’t find his way back to his home planet -- is in the course of the film irredeemably corrupted by the intoxicating things (and people) he encounters in his new earthly surroundings.  

The British director of The Man Who Fell to Earth, Nicolas Roeg, was not without experience coaxing screen performances out of rock stars. He made his directorial debut with Performance, about a bizarre encounter between an East London gangster on the lam (James Fox) and a fading musical idol (Mick Jagger) bent on returning to his former glory. He also helmed an admired Australian film, Walkabout, and just prior to The Man Who Fell to Earth he made a major splash with the enigmatic 1973 thriller, Don’t Look Now. Starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland as bereaved parents mourning their drowned little girl, it is perhaps best remembered for its eerie atmosphere and frank sex scenes. (Sexual frankness, including no-holds-barred nudity, also marks the screen encounters between Bowie and earthling Candy Clark in The Man Who Fell to Earth.

A Roeg film is always visually striking. Roeg started out as a cinematographer, working second unit on Lawrence of Arabia and taking charge of the inspired cinematography for one of Roger Corman’s very best Poe films, The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Author Susan Compo, who seems to have spoken to all the living survivors of The Man Who Fell to Earth, emphasizes the impact made on the filmmakers by the picturesque state of New Mexico, where the film was almost entirely shot. As a “right-to-work” state, New Mexico was able to welcome an almost entirely British film crew without concern about union restrictions. The state’s stark landscapes, picturesque mining towns, and general sense of isolation work brilliantly, especially the use of White Sands National Monument to simulate the arid reaches of the Bowie character’s home planet. 

Still, in narrative terms the film doesn’t always make sense, partly due to Roeg’s insistence on avoiding strict chronology. Bowie, though, makes a perfect alien, with his off-camera excesses doubtlessly contributing to his otherworldly air. 


  1. Great comparison. I haven't seen this movie but maybe I should!

  2. I'd been interested in your take on it, Hilary.