Director: Nicolas Roeg
Starring: David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark
Running time: 149 mins
Release Date: October 24th 2016
There was a strange rumour going around for years that David Bowie was born and raised in South London and was in a mod band. Clearly that wasn’t true – he was an alien who lived in space and sent transmissions to Earth in the form of near-perfect records. And here’s the proof – a film in which he so perfectly embodies an alien it’s actually a shock to hear him talking with an English accent.
When he died in January this year it seemed like a genuine shock and the end of something. It produced lots of retrospectives in the form of docs and books. The wonderful Studio Canal however were already working on a scrubbed-up, digitally remastered version of The Man Who Fell To Earth. Its release is in no way a cash-in, but it does give us another chance to revisit this moment in time when Bowie was arguably at his creative peak – and personal isolation.
Of course Bowie wouldn’t be Bowie if he didn’t leave us with a mystery, and here it’s in the form of the soundtrack. For the many Bowie obsessives out there – I’m one, if that’s not already obvious – this Collector’s Edition is worth shelling out for just to get nearer the tantalising mystery of the film’s music. For those who don’t know, the film was made during Bowie’s move towards instrumentals and experimentation, so surely he is on the soundtrack, right? Well, no, and the reasons for that are very complicated. As the second disc of this set reveals in a 17-minute doc just on the music, he apparently did sit down and write some music, specifically a song called Wheels describing his alien’s journey to Earth. However, the music was never properly produced or finished, and when it was presented to Nic Roeg the director rejected it.
He hired instead John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas, who delivered a less sci-fi, more Americana style of music, plus work by Stomu Yamash’ta. When the film was released a paperback edition of the novel was released, and on the back cover read “soundtrack now available from RCA Records”. However, that soundtrack was never released – until now, with a separate CD of the Phillips work.
The mystery remains though; what happened to the Bowie music? The story told on the DVD is that the film was shot and cut but no music was coming, and the studio and director got antsy, so Phillips’ soundtrack was used. The producer Michael Deeley bluntly states: “He couldn’t get it together”. But Bowie was writing – he was always writing – and some of it ended up on Low and Station To Station, which he recorded after the film, but there is no song called Wheels. Perhaps it will surface one day when an entire box set of Bowie rarities is released. What is certain is that it would have been a very different film with the Bowie music – the version we got has some lovely bluegrass and country songs playing on the radio in the background of various scenes as Bowie drives across the beautiful countryside.
Back to the film itself. The new released is based on a 4K scan of the original negative, with the approval of both Roeg and cinematographer Anthony Richmond. The colours have been changed slightly with the magenta reduced, although happily the film still looks like it was made 40 years ago, which it was. Just look at the album covers of Low and Station To Station, which are taken directly from the film.
Bowie often talked about his experience of making the film, when he was existing entirely on milk and cocaine, and feeling utterly alienated. He was also proud however of his work ethic – he was on time, followed Roeg’s directions and never stopped being in character – simply, he felt like an alien on Earth so he behaved like one. His character learns English through watching TV, which explains his weird voice. It’s pretty much the performance he was born to give, and the timing was perfect. He might not have been an actor but he was certainly a performer, and he understands that here.
The story is a simple one in its way. Bowie is Newton, an alien living on a planet where there is a terrible drought. He journeys to Earth having seen our planet’s water on TV, and sets about raising a huge sum so he can fly home with a plentiful supply. He basically invents the polaroid, and sets up a company to rake in the cash. However, he can’t seem to shake his addiction to TV, and then he takes his first drink…followed by plenty more.
It’s also worth noting the work of Candy Clark, the sweet but simple hotel maid he becomes involved with. Two top facts for film geeks – she played two other people in the film, the wife he leaves behind on his plant (who doesn’t speak) and Newton himself. Bowie was unavailable for a final shot, so she stepped in, dressed as him and wore his fedora over her face. It’s a crucial performance as she provides the warmth and humanism opposite Bowie’s icy alien cool.
It’s certainly not a perfect film, it’s too jumpy, there are leaps in the narrative, and sometimes it is just plain weird. It’s also pretty much without humour – Nic Roeg doesn’t really do jokes, although there is one lovely scene where Clark takes Bowie to church, and he pretends he can’t sing – pretty tough for a man with his distinctive voice.
Overall Verdict: Bowie’s definitive film performance finally gets the cleaned-up digitally remastered version it so richly deserves, plus oodles of extras including that long overdue CD soundtrack. It’s a genuine oddity that rewards multiple viewings.
Reviewer: Mike Martin
Disc 1 –
Disc 2 –
Extract from David Bowie interview – French TV 1977, 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, featuring interviews with Paul Buckmaster and author Chris Campion, Interview with Candy Clark, Interview with writer Paul Mayersberg, Interview with cinematographer Tony Richmond, Interview with director Nicolas Roeg, Watching the Alien featurette, Trailer
CD – All the music that John Philips recorded especially for the film during his London sessions in early 1976 – two of the tracks, ‘Hello Mary Lou’ and ‘Bryce’ are exclusive to this bonus CD.
Exclusive bonus John Phillips CD, Booklet, X 4 artcards, Original press book, A4 poster of new theatrical quad