‘Earth Bound: David Bowie and The Man Who Fell To Earth’ reviewed

❉  A long overdue monograph on one of the ultimate cult movies.

In 1928, novelist Walter Tevis is born in San Francisco’s Sunset Heights, only to be uprooted as a sickly child to be raised “rather traumatically” in backwoods, Depression-era Kentucky. In 1959, his first novel, The Hustler, is published by Harper and quickly optioned as a movie, released in 1961 to critical and commercial acclaim, starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason. Tevis’ follow-up, The Man Who Fell To Earth, “an emotional self portrait… of my own estrangement and sense of alienation”, fares less well, selling 300,000 copies (“Not bad, but not that good by pocketbook standards”) and loses out in the precursor of the Hugo Award, the Little Green Man, to Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.

In 1962, hot on the heels of The Hustler’s cinematic release, the much-married clarinettist and bandleader Artie Shaw’s Artixo Productions options Tevis’ paperback sci-fi novel, which then passes through many hands, being purchased – and then passed on – by Cannon Films (“It would have been a Flash Gordon movie”, laughed Hollywood agent Howard Rubin). The resting property eventually arrives at the desk of David Cammell, whose brother Donald had co-produced Performance (1970) with cinematographer-turned-director Nicolas Roeg. The story captivates Roeg, and he assigns former film critic Paul Mayersberg – who recognises the story’s affinities with the fall of Icarus, Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby –  to script it. “The fact that the book had not reached the screen before struck me as surprising”, Mayersberg opined. “The novel seemed to have most of the basic ingredients on the basic level for an exciting, and above all unusual film.”

In January 1973, David Bowie confides to NME’s Charles Shaar Murray that he is considering starring in a movie of Robert Heinlein’s A Stranger In A Strange Land, cautiously asking the inkslinger, “Do you think it would translate well into film?” “I’ve bought it” he tells CSM, then backtracking slightly, “I’ve written some songs for it, anyway” after CSM reminds Bowie that Charles Manson described the novel as “the worst great-written book I’ve ever read.”

In September 1974, the gaunt, skeletal figure of David Bowie – all glazed expression, anxious tics and wiry, nervous energy – is being driven around the arid countryside of California and the sleazy streets of LA in a long black limousine as he prepares for the first show of the second leg of his Diamond Dogs tour, at the Universal Amphitheatre, Los Angeles. This is all captured on film by Alan Yentob for an edition of the BBC’s arts series Omnibus, entitled Cracked Actor: A suitable title for a portrait of pop’s foremost role-player perfomer, visibly a delicate husk of a man thanks to the alienating effects of the meteoric rise to superstardom and a prolific cocaine habit. A spaced-out, spaceman.

In January 1975,  Omnibus: Cracked Actor airs on BBC 2, and it is seen by Nicolas Roeg, who has already considered Peter O’Toole and actor-turned-writer Michael Crichton for the titular role in The Man Who Fell To Earth. Legends vary as to how Roeg happened upon the programme, although Bowie’s agent Maggie Abbott is credited with bringing Bowie to Roeg’s attention. Si Litvinoff: “Maggie was significant. As Bowie’s agent, she suggested him and got Cracked Actor for us to see, despite Nic’s claim of seeing it accidentally on TV, and worked with us to get him.”

In Summer 1975, The Man Who Fell To Earth (hereafter TMWFTE) is filmed largely in New Mexico by an all-British crew (a first), where the principal cast are joined by an entourage including photographer Brian Duffy, journalist George Perry, Bowie’s old mucker Geoff McCormack, and – briefly – Bowie’s estranged wife Angela, no fan of Roeg’s “masturbatory directorial style”, but surprisingly approving of Bowie’s co-star Candy Clark (An Oscar nominee for American Graffiti), who shares several intimate sex scenes with her husband; “I never had an issue with (her). I thought she was very professional. Candy was very pleasant and polite with me.”

In 1976, as Bowie’s Station To Station tour zizags across Europe and North America, TMWFTE makes its cinematic debut, to mixed reviews. Bowie’s bodyguard Tony Mascia appears as Newton’s chauffeur, Arthur. In its closing scene, as Bowie’s Thomas Jerome Newton hiccups – mirroring the belch of the wino who is Newton’s first sighting of an Earthling, underlining that the marooned, hopeless Newton has now become fully human – the credits roll under the strains of jazz standard Stardust, by Artie Shaw.

In December 5 2015, a frail, cadaverous yet still handsome and effortlessly stylish David Bowie makes his last public appearance at the opening night of the New York Theatre Workshop’s production of Lazarus, an off-Broadway musical written by Bowie, in collaboration with Enda Walsh and Ivo Van Howe, based upon TMWFTE. Just over a month later, on Monday 11 January 2017, the world wakes up to the news that David Bowie has died, with the musical Lazarus and his Blackstar album doubling as his curtain call.

Despite the film having become a visual touchstone for two consecutive Bowie album covers (Station To Station, Low) as well as his first 12″ single (1979’s John I’m Only Dancing (Again)), in the intervening years since TMWFTE’s release, Bowie had spoken little of the film, other than to praise Roeg (“It didn’t take long for me to realise the man was a genius. He’s at a level of understanding of art that totally overshadows me.”), but its significance as the uber-Bowie, ur-text alter ego – starman, leper messiah, stranger in a strange land – clearly resonated enough for him to revisit his first major motion picture role for one of his last creative projects.

In October 2017, as I read of the death of Fats Domino – whose Blueberry Hill soundtracks Thomas Jerome Newton’s first up-close, queasy encounter with a human being – I sit down to review Earth Bound: David Bowie and The Man Who Fell To Earth by Susan Compo. A book from which many of the facts in the rambling preamble you have just been reading (Hello, if you’re still with us!) have been gleaned. If, like me, you are a seasoned Bowie-watcher and –reader, you would be forgiven for experiencing a sense of ennui and feeling of fatigue at the announcement of ‘yet another Bowie book’ – to quote Bowie fan, Blitz kid and professional artist Mark Wardel the “overkill” of the posthumous “feeding frenzy”.

Don’t be fooled by the name: Despite Bowie’s prominence in the title of Compo’s book, this is not yet another Bowie book. It is, however, a book that a lot of Bowie fans should want on their shelf, as well as movie buffs and admirers of the work of Nicolas Roeg.

A long overdue monograph for a film that is resolutely enigmatic and impressionistic, Earth Bound does not diminish TMWFTE’s said qualities. What it does do is finally shed a light on the numerous individuals and factors that all contributed to this film’s status as a genuine cult artefact. It’s testimony to the fact that, even with a film credited to an auteur like Roeg, cinema is a collaborative medium, and major and minor players alike receive a tip of the hat; from Tevis (who casts a long shadow over proceedings), to Mayersberg, via Howard Rubin, Maggie Abbott, the entourage of cast and crew including the child actors who played Newton’s Athenan children (speaking for the first time), the Santa Fe police force, the minister of the First Presbytarian Church where Newton warbles Jerusalem in one telling scene (“It probably didn’t hurt (Bowie) to be in a church”), hair stylist Martin Samuel, costume designer Mary Routh, wardrobe manager Ola Hudson and her young son Saul (that’s Slash from Guns N Roses to you), photographer Brian Duffy (who lensed the iconic sleeves for Aladdin Sane and Scary Monsters), Graeme Clifford, Tony Richmond, even the creators of the contact lenses Bowie dons when he reveals his true Athenan form and which caused such discomfort that a reveal scene was filmed painstakingly in reverse.

We also learn of the backstory of Lilybelle Crawford, who played the pawn shop owner Bowie encounters and whose creased, weather-beaten skin is a striking contrast to Newton’s unearthly (and it turns out, illusory) alabaster visage, and that two of Rip Torn’s character’s conquests in the films were model Linda Hutton and heiress Sabrina Guinness. Torn himself, for a Hollywood bad boy, only merits one anecdote involving a fishing expedition.

The awe inspiring New Mexico location alone deserves its own credit. Even pop culture Zelig Terry Southern  makes a cameo. For anyone interested in the history of the British film industry in the ‘70s, British Lion’s bosses Michael Spikins and Barry Deeley figure heavily in the background, not unlike the shadowy spook who witnesses Newton’s arrival.

We also learn that Walter Tevis, whose suggestions to Mayersberg’s original shooting script are all rejected, is suitably piqued when the Pan tie-in reprint of the novel, featuring a painting by Bowie’s childhood friend George Underwood, displays Bowie’s name in the same point size as the title: “It looks like (Bowie) wrote it.”

The real star of the book, however, is Candy Clark. TMWFTE was released in two forms: in its uncut, 2’20” glory in the UK, but chopped down to size in the States by distributor Cinema 5, who broke Monty Python And The Holy Grail in the US.

Candy ducked out of a nationwide promotional tour of the film after discovering that the film had been butchered (“I almost threw up. They destroyed it”); by way of atonement, in 1992, Clark personally petitioned Cinema 5, then under new management, to reissue it theatrically in its uncut state (“I always had it in the back of my mind to make this right, fix it somehow”), going so far as to call up the distributors personally, telling them “I get asked constantly about this film. People want to see it but they want to see the full version” – and point the company in the direction of the full negative, residing with British Lion. “I was the only one who called and pitched, so it probably would have been nowhereville. It would be dead.”

Earth Bound is a solidly researched, impeccably constructed, comprehensive guide to one of the classic cult films of the 1970s: Released to mixed reviews, butchered to the point of incomprehensibility on its US release, only really finding a devoted audience thanks to a late 80s VHS release, a rare airing on Alex Cox’s Moviedrome, before receiving a new lease of life on laserdisc, DVD and ultimately Blu-Ray.

You’ll find everything you ever wanted to know about TMWFTE’s origin, genesis and afterlife here – including a welcome chapter on the jokey, ill-fated TV movie, eclipsed at the time by Jeff Bridges’ Starman – and the entry on its soundtracks – the movie version (original tunes by Wolfman of LA John Phillips alongside excerpts from Stomu Yamash’ta’s catalogue) and its AWOL Bowie-scored soundtrack, which begat Subterraneans and Some Are – is fascinating reading for those of a trainspotterish persuasion, not least because it highlights the errors and omissions of Universal Music’s much-trumpeted, and incomplete, 2016 soundtrack album. Elsewhere, a walk-through of Mayersberg’s first draft screenplay (“a selling tool”, he stressed) – complete with inclusions of Bowie’s own Space Oddity and Changes along with Elton John’s Rocket Man, and appended by Tevis’ own notes, all ignored – makes for insightful reading.

If David Bowie’s film career only merits one mention, it will either be 1986’s Labyrinth or TMWFTE. All things being equal, I’m sure we won’t have to wait another decade before Jawbone Press publish ‘David Bowie and Labyrinth’, but in the meantime, Susan Compo’s epic journey from Icarus descending to Lazarus rising, a story that all told spans almost a century from Tevis’ birth to Bowie’s passing, is a thumpingly comprehensive, thoroughly objective, and totally readable insight into one of the most visually stylish sci-fi parables of our time. Earth Bound will sit equally at home on the bookshelf of any Bowie-nut or hardcore cinephile alike, as a rigorously-researched documentary on major movie independent film making before George Lucas’ Star Wars arrived a year later and changed everything.

‘Earth Bound: David Bowie and The Man Who Fell To Earth’ by Susan Compo, was published by Jawbone Books on 24 October 2017. RRP £14.95

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