I always had a compulsive need to be something more than human. I felt very puny as a human. I thought, “Fuck that. I want to be a superhuman.” – David Bowie.
The ability to both sing and act is no longer mutually exclusive with the majority of todays young moppets & aspiring stars being trained in stage schools, conservatories, universities worldwide now expected to be a triple threat and more in order to be employed within the increasingly fragmented and globalized film, television and music industries.
The variety or all round entertainer has it seems made a comeback within the mainstream and there is no longer the stigma that was previously attached to a successful pop or rock artiste who wished to have a go at at being an actor.
What is their motivation? Is it to purely indulge their own ego and capitalize on their
success or out of a sheer creative curiosity and a wish to realize an unfulfilled dream. Well, my friends that’s what I hope to investigate.
My reason for delving into this theme are of course purely self indulgent and I will be focusing on rock and pop artists for which I have some affinity for; meaning that hip hop and rap artists for whom crossing over into film, television and any other medium you can think of has never been an issue will be mostly sidelined.
I will be highlighting the successes and failures of iconic performers who having initially made a name and reputation in the music world have attempted that once potentially perilous crossover.
And so we begin with that oul cockney shapeshifter himself: the eternally elusive chameleon, the most alien of rock stars, Mr David Jones aka David Bowie who was at the peak of his cultdom in 1975 when he accepted the lead role of an extraterrestial being in The Man Who Fell to Earth, director Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of a science fiction novel by Walter Tevis.
It is surely no great leap to deduce what attracted Bowie to the project dealing as it does with an alien stranded on Earth, a variation on the Bowie’s own Ziggy Stardust persona which had catapulted him to fame, painting him as the ultimate outsider; a sexually ambigous, otherwordly idol to legions of disaffected, confused teenagers. This was a chance for Bowie to use cinema to further embellish this mythology aided by the visonary Roeg, crystalize it in the popular consciousness and then to discard it, free to pursue another artistic identity.
It was also as an artist for him to utilize the performing skills he had picked up in the late Sixties under the tutelage of his mentor, theatrical mime artist Linsday Kemp. There had always been a theatricality and sense of play in Bowies stage performances and range of musical styles, thus The Man Who Fell to Earth was a logical career transition and the role of Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien being who comes to earth to find water for his dying planet was surely a role he was destined for.
The result of this coming together of unique minds not surprisingly produced one of the strangest science fiction films of all time, a christ allegory that was also a meditative exploration of humanity, big business and consumer culture. Bowie’s opaque, detached performance and Roeg’s unorthodox style fashioned a mesmerising work of cultural iconocalism.
After the films cult success for which Bowie is identified with more than any other, he went to have a rather haphazard acting career, one for which he has received no shortage of critical derision, most of which is unfairly tinged by scepticism and jealousy but some of which is justified when you scan through Bowie’s dodgy career choices; i.e., Absolute Beginners, The Linguini Incident, Just a Gigolo, Labyrinth –which I loved as a kid but back then I thought that Angel Delight was a sophisticated dessert – are a few examples which seem to have been picked by Bowie purely to sate his own ego or to satisfy a whim.
It wasn’t really until 2006 when he appeared as inventor Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s serpentine period thriller The Prestige that critics finally started to cut him some slack and his sly, witty performance adds a frisson of ambiguity and mystery to the film. Nolan understands Bowie’s iconic power, using his presence sparingly and in doing so, gives us arguably his most effective screen role since his 1976 debut.