SoundTreks | The Best David Bowie Songs in Films
Although we’ve now had a few days to let the information sink in, I think many of us are still reeling from the news of David Bowie’s death on Sunday night. Fans have spoken out en masse, and tributes to the man are innumerable. Trying to think of adjectives to describe Bowie is an insurmountable task, as nothing seems to capture the unique, pansexual, ever-chameleonic glittering grandeur that is Ziggy Stardust. But we here at SoundTreks can, at the very least, look at some notable movies and movie soundtracks, and select some of the smarter uses of Bowie’s music.
Check Out: The Unforgettable Film Roles of David Bowie
According to the Internet Movie Database, Bowie’s songs have appeared in literally hundreds of TV shows and movies. Most of the selections are obvious. Some are ambient. A few are clever. One or two are downright brilliant. Right now, though, it’s just a pleasure to listen to some of these songs and be reminded of the towering brilliance of one of rock’s most bold personalities.
“Young Americans” – Dogville and Manderlay
Bowie’s upbeat ballad to young Americans was employed wickedly by Danish bad boy Lars Von Trier for the first two films in his American trilogy (the third part, Wasington, has yet to surface). Over the credits of these two films, Von Trier shows a montage of some of the horrors of American history – a legacy of poverty, desolation, and hate – and let’s Bowie serenade us. The irony is a bit on the nose, of course, but that doesn’t mean the pain isn’t real. It’s a smart way to use an upbeat song.
“Modern Love” – Frances Ha
It was recently brought to my attention that the “Modern Love” sequence from Noah Baumbach’s excellent Frances Ha was likely visually cribbed from Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang. In Frances Ha, however, there is, once again, a note of irony. The obvious “Modern Love” is used as a youthful celebration of the title character’s joyous (?) life in New York. Ultimately, though, the film is about how remaining youthful for too long can be an unseemly enterprise. The energy is still there in full force, as is the poetry.
“Kooks” – Hanna
“Kooks” is a damn romantic song. It’s a ballad sung by two parents to their (hypothetical?) child, who are pleading that the child “take a chance with a couple of kooks caught up in romancing.” Hanna, an underrated and totally bonkers action flick from 2011, is about a young soulless super-soldier girl who leaves the comfort of her father’s snowbound hunting grounds to discover her own humanity out in the world (not to mention a severe mother figure played by Cate Blanchett). There is a definite theme of parents and children, and “Kooks” is a perfect (and, again, mildly ironic) sentiment.
“Queen Bitch” – Milk
David Bowie’s approach to sexuality was sort-of an all-at-once affair. He once announced he was bisexual, allegedly had affairs with men, dressed in feminine clothing, seduced women… he was a sex symbol for everyone regardless of gender and sexuality. It’s even been said that Bowie’s aggressive queerness helped usher in a wave of gay tolerance. It makes perfect sense, then, that “Queen Bitch” should be included in a notable Gus Van Sant biopic about Harvey Milk, an openly gay San Francisco politician. If you need a gay rights anthem, why not “Queen Bitch?”
“All the Young Dudes” – Juno
David Bowie originally wrote “All the Young Dudes” for Mott the Hoople in 1972, but took to singing it himself shortly thereafter, and it ended up appearing on one of his records two years later. The title leads many to believe that it’s an anthem to, well, young dudes, and how great they are. This misinterpretation is perfect for a movie like Juno, which features hip young kids who are still trying to figure out how their hipness works. The title character is obsessed with young dudes. Perfect. Never mind that the song is actually about something else entirely. Juno would likely make that mistake.
“The Man Who Sold the World” – Kurt Cobain: About a Son
“The Man Who Sold the World” was famously covered by Nirvana on MTV Unplugged back in 1993. It was clearly an important song to Kurt Cobain. The 2006 documentary film Kurt Cobain: About a Son details the life of the famously gloomy pop sensation through grey, abstract montages and pop-song-constructed soundscapes. The soundtrack features no actual Nirvana music. But, in the context of the film, we can hear the influence, and we understand why Nirvana would have sung this particular song.
“Fame” – 15 Minutes
No one remembers the 2001 thriller 15 Minutes, not even those who saw it. It’s about a team of murderers of vague Eastern European origin who film their own murderous crimes for the express purpose of becoming famous. The commentary is blunt, and it seems ham-fisted to include David Bowie’s “Fame” on the soundtrack, right? Well, not necessarily. The song is so salient and awesome, that it overwhelms the film, becoming its one defining characteristic. In a way, the film becomes a brief commentary on the song, and not the other way ’round.
“I’m Afraid of Americans” – Showgirls
Pairing the song’s sentiment with the notorious bomb Showgirls is brilliant in retrospect only. In the context of the film, the main character merely grinds to “I’m Afraid” in a club. Neither the characters in the film nor the filmmakers seem to sense the direct correlation between song and film. I largely included this one on the list to show off the breadth and depth of Bowie’s filmic legacy.
“I’m Waiting for the Man” – Almost Famous
Is it heretical to say that I like Bowie’s version better than Lou Reed’s?
“Under Pressure” – Grosse Pointe Blank
The scene below is oddly brilliant. The main character of Grosse Pointe Blank is a hitman who elects to attend his high school reunion only to discover just how far afield he lives from the rest of normal humanity. David Bowie’s and Queen’s “Under Pressure” has been used in countless movies and TV shows, but this is perhaps the best use. It’s used to underline a scene wherein John Cusack takes an intense regard for the world’s second most adorable baby. In that moment, all of his life is redefined. Does he see himself? Pressure to leave his life and join the “normals?” Is a normal life now possible? Is humanity returning?
“The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” – Seven
One of Bowie’s more disturbing songs makes the perfect soundtrack for one of the ’90s more disturbing thrillers. David Bowie is most often called a glam rocker, but he rotated through various styles and genres, including a grungy industrial idiom that marked a lot of his output from the era of flannel and Clinton. Bowie can give out tonal horror just as well as Trent Reznor.
Top Image: British Lion Films
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.