Just last week, on January 10, 2016, singer David Bowie died of cancer at age 69. His media team issued a statement on Facebook late Sunday, saying that Bowie “died peacefully…surrounded by his family.” At the time of my writing, the statement has been shared over 387,000 times. Yet posting more than a week after his passing, and writing here on BACKWORDS Blog, this is neither a tribute to David Bowie nor breaking news of this terrible yet inevitable loss to musical history.
My experience with Bowie has been incidental. I was born in 1982, after the singer’s influence on British rock was already cemented. And I grew up listening to the music of my parents—far removed from the rock and roll genre—the folky tunes of Joan Baez and Dan Fogelberg and Gordon Lightfoot issuing from the tape/CD decks of our Land Cruiser to the children in the backseat of long car trips, as we sped toward Yellowstone or Glacier National Parks. I wasn’t raised to be a fan. I don’t even really consider myself one now. I don’t have a single piece of Bowie memorabilia. I own not a single one of his albums. When my high school crush, Mike, painted his face 1973-Bowie “Aladdin Sane” for Halloween one year, my eyes darted back and forth from iconic lightning bolt to naked collarbone like they were playing Pong, but the reference was entirely lost on me.
I came late to Bowie, well after graduating from high school. It wasn’t until 2005, when my then-boyfriend, Marc, stared at me in exasperated silence after the dumb “Who?” I gave in answer to a song on his playlist. I knew the voice, but I couldn’t connect it to a face or name. So Marc delivered a tirade for the history books about Bowie’s monumental and ever-changing image, which, equal to his talent, served as a constant challenge to traditional masculinity in pop culture throughout the singer’s career—and inspired more than a few queer kids and outcasts to imitate the same. It was love: Marc loved him. When news of Bowie’s death reached Marc on Monday, he posted a favorite music video and said humbly: “Safe travels.”
If anywhere, I was more likely to know David Bowie in film. I saw Labyrinth, of course, Jim Henson’s 1986 dark fantasy film, starring Bowie. And I caught clips of his Pilate in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) in a class in college. With 39 film credits as an actor, and over 450 and counting on soundtracks, most would be hard-pressed not to feel Bowie’s enduring influence—even a little. I laughed my ass off at his cameo in Zoolander (2001), judging the pop-up “walkoff” contest between fake male models. The scene is funny, yet not because of Bowie directly—though his eyebrows steal the scene for a minute, —but mostly Bowie is part of the landscape, a familiar icon amidst the film’s veritable rush of iconic cameos.
Film is also the more likely candidate for any brush with Bowie within my own family, as my grandfather, Bill Hertz, managed Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood for more than twenty years—largely when Ted Mann, starting in 1973, owned the landmark theatre. He ran public relations for the Mann chain for much of the rest of his career and was ever-present, often serving as master of ceremonies, for nearly all the famous footprint ceremonies in Hollywood. It is likely he met Bowie, perhaps even held the singer’s boot, when Bowie was immortalized in cement on the Walk of Fame in 1996.
Yet my most influential experience with David Bowie was relatively minor, compared to loving fans, though no less heartfelt: it came during a bridge scene in the 2005 queer international film, C.R.A.Z.Y., directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. The film spans 20 years in the life of Zachary Beaulieu, one of 5 brothers, through surprising and unexpected happenings—much the action sharply focused on his family, his mother’s new-age Catholicism and father’s gruff blue-collar insistence on appearances—sees Zach (played by Marc-Andre Grondin) eventually accept his true nature. Most of the Quebec-based film’s budget went to its soundtrack, taking its title from Patsy Cline’s “Crazy for You” which features prominently throughout as the film’s cornerstone/wedge in Zach’s relationship to his father’s approval, yet Bowie makes a beautiful impression in the standout scene cementing Zac’s transition from child to teenager.
The scene opens with a crop frame, tight on Zach’s hands, as he loads a fresh vinyl into his bedroom record player; the frame then stays relatively tight on Zach’s face, as he lays back in bed to smoke a blunt. David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” begins to play, loudly, filling the room with sound—as Zach himself fantasizes about his favorite cousin and her hot boyfriend/dance partner, Paul. To help himself along, Zach blows his own “shotgun”—like the one he received earlier in the film from Paul—and Zach is transported. Only when the film pans down again, out of fantasy and back into the bedroom, our Zach is full-on 1973-Bowie “Aladdin Sane,” complete with his own face-painted lightning bolt. The shots are wider now, as the camera pans around slowly, following Zach as he sings along to “Space Oddity,” eventually interrupted by his brother who points out the laughing crowd of neighborhood kids outside the bedroom window.
What I like most about this scene is how loudly the music plays: it plays as the opposite of background, filling the bedroom (and thus the viewer) with Bowie. Slow pans, a kind of floaty quality to the camerawork, and long takes combine with lyrics of “Space Oddity” to make an immersive moment. Staging elements, such as a constellation globe and a poster of the Earth from space, only enhance the feeling. With his lightning bolt facepaint, Zach is Bowie’s narrator in the song. The lyrics’ repeated question, “Can you hear me, Major Tom?”, achieves a grounding for Zach’s adolescent sexual posturing and faltering in frightening viscera and confusion. Marc-Andre Grondin plays it as deftly and subtly as he plays Zach’s dreamlike floating seconds earlier: perhaps because your ears are so full of Bowie, and Zach’s own in tandem aching, but it feels like the world is ending. It is atmospheric. Take a look:
What’s more, knowing Bowie—as a performer, as an icon—lends weight to the already powerful scene. After watching “C.R.A.Z.Y.” for the first time, I spent hours afterward on YouTube laying my hands on anything David Bowie I could find. Luckily there was quite a lot.
According to Telegraph, Bowie’s last record, Lazarus, was his own farewell to fans—orchestrated with full knowledge of his end and released on his 69th birthday, just two days before his death. It opens with the lyrics: “Look up here, I’m in Heaven!”
But we here on Earth can only echo Marc, repeating our “safe travels” like a prayer, bowing at the passing of a legend. He’ll never need to ask us if we can hear him. Goodbye, Space Oddity: we were crazy for you.