Subterranean homesick alien: ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’

❉  We mark the 40th anniversary of  the cult classic, ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, re-released today on Blu-ray as a 4k restoration.

Without featuring a single note of Bowie’s own music, the film ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ is the best music video David Bowie ever made. Over its two hours and twenty minutes’ running time, you will learn more about Bowie’s artistic sensibility than from anything you may stumble across on MTV or VH1. It was through this film that I initially became a Bowiephile, helping me pull together the patchwork quilt of received impressions and half-listened-to albums that I had up to that point.

I first saw ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ late one Sunday night during the early 1990s on BBC2, which often showed cult films in its ‘Moviedrome’ slot. I can’t remember the exact circumstances, but I do know that I also saw Alan Yentob’s ‘Cracked Actor’ documentary around the same time, one leading me to watch the other. Indeed, both film and documentary act as their own yin and yang, fact informing fiction informing fact, as director Nic Roeg cast Bowie on the back of the documentary.

For those of you who have not seen the film, it is about a stranded alien who goes by the name Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie). He sets about building his own technology company so he can get back to his family, who were left behind on a dying planet, but ends up being corrupted and defeated by modern capitalism in the process. More impressionistic than linear, it is how the film is furnished that provides its edge and angularity rather than the somewhat B-movie plot described above.

From the outset, the film makes Bowie its prime focus, often appropriating visual cues from Yentob’s documentary (blacked-out stretch limos taking a stranger from a strange land across an even more alien American landscape) and photographing him as a 1930s Hollywood starlet. Bowie’s own brand of alluring androgyny and raw sexuality is woven throughout, with male nudity (Bowie’s and others) unusually being the sexualised element just as much as the female nudity. In fact, the film’s relaxed and non-pointed take on sexuality must have been seen as refreshing and daring back in 1976 as it seemed to me back in the 1990s. If anything, forty years on from the film’s release, it is depressing that a major film would probably shy away from such an open, non-prurient take on these themes.

But ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ is not about titillation; it is about innovation, exploration, space, sexuality and corruption, all of which are thematic threads running through Bowie’s musically diverse (stylistically) oeuvre. Indeed, Bowie’s career up to that point entirely informs ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, even opening up with a stranded space explorer in the same way that Bowie entered the public consciousness with the story of Major Tom in Space Oddity. Subsequently, ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ would be an important touchstone for Bowie, providing imagery for two album covers and even prompting the book of his musical Lazarus, a direct sequel of sorts.

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Upon watching ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, everything that I’d accrued about Bowie seemed to fall into place. The kaleidoscope had been shaken and an attractive picture came into focus, one that that had been lacking up to that point for me.

Unimaginable as it may seem writing in 2016, there was a time when Bowie was widely ridiculed and viewed as a spent force, that time being the early 1990s. To someone of my generation (early teens at the time), the Bowie in the public domain was a besuited, somewhat small ‘c’ conservative figure who appeared in movies with Muppets and who hadn’t released anything musically attractive since the ‘Let’s Dance’ album. His latest incarnation was the overly macho garage rock of Tin Machine, and I remember being distinctly unimpressed with his performance at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, it being characterised by him bringing on other ’70s musicians (Mick Ronson, Ian Hunter) who had no relevance for me (at the time, that is).

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It was against this backdrop that I first saw ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, and it was a much-needed corrective. Half-remembered lyrics from ‘The Singles Collection’ and from ‘Scary Monsters’ (both of which I owned) began to make sense, as the numbed-out isolation of Sound and Vision and the dystopian, sexually confused future of Drive-In Saturday were given cinematic form. Indeed, Bowie’s most famous character was Ziggy Stardust, who was nothing less than a messianic figure brought down by the masses and excess, and so it was with Thomas Newton too.

Around the time of Bowie’s death, I rewatched ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, and I was struck again not only by its brilliance but also by how it seemed even more pertinent today than it must have done at the time of release. In an age when one man is single-handedly driving disruptive technological revolutions to get a mission to Mars in a bid to save humanity from itself (Elon Musk, Tesla and SpaceX), a film that was seen as potentially gonzo at the time now can be seen as eerily prophetic.

‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ ends with Newton as a dried-up rocker, recording music in the hope that the radio transmissions will reach his family out in space. In the final scene, a waiter pointedly says to a sloshed Newton’s drinking companion, “I think perhaps Mr Newton has had enough, don’t you?”, and before seeing the film, I thought I had had enough Bowie to form a final adolescent judgement of him. Ironically, the Bowie I knew (or thought I knew) before watching the film fitted that washed-up image, but the film itself encouraged me to dig deeper into Bowie’s back catalogue. I am so glad that it did.

DVD/BLU-RAY SPECIAL FEATURES:

❉ New interview with costume designer May Routh featuring original costume sketches
❉ New interview with stills photographer David James featuring behind the scenes stills
❉ New interview with fan Sam Taylor-Johnson
❉ New interview with producer Michael Deeley
❉ New “The Lost Soundtracks” featurette including interviews with Paul Buckmaster and author Chris Campion
❉ French TV Interview with David Bowie in 1977
❉ Interview with Candy Clark
❉ Interview with cinematographer Tony Richmond
❉ Interview with Nic Roeg
❉ “Watching the Alien” featurette
❉ Trailers / TV spots


❉  ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ Collector’s Edition, Blu-Ray, DVD and download was released on 24 October by Studio Canal Vintage Classics.

❉  The motion picture soundtrack to David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth was released commercially for the very first time, as a two-disc CD/LP set on September 9th from Universal Music Group.

❉  A behind-the-scenes look at the making of the landmark sci-fi movie is also published in September from Unstoppable Cards Limited Editions.

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