In an interview several years ago, David Bowie’s son Duncan Jones – who stepped out of his father’s shadow with a grace and ease that would make the old man proud – spoke very warmly about his upbringing. Bowie, he said, was a kind and attentive father, and with the exception of a few amenities (he had a copy of Star Wars before anyone else did), there didn’t seem to be anything abnormal about life growing up.
That’s the last thing we’d expect from Bowie, who passed away this Sunday at the age of 69. The man defined abnormality: he was the ultimate outsider, the Beautiful Weirdo who fit into no established class of person. Yet he was more than simply a rock star who spoke to the put upon. Had he been that, we’d be speaking of him as a footnote, not an icon. The secret lay in his mercurial ability to reinvent himself seemingly on a whim. Often imitated but never duplicated, it freed him from the confines of fashion and taste, rendering him an outsider no matter who you were or where you grew up.
And that made him an outsider for everyone. Anyone who ever felt different or weird or marginalized found a champion in him. The fat boy, the Jewish girl, the boy who played with dolls… all of them discovered something in Bowie’s ever-changing façade that told them they weren’t alone. No one else could unify so many different people so completely. No one else could make the freak so universally beloved.
He channeled the lion’s share of that energy into his music, of course, and no words could possibly encapsulate the impact he caused with it. But his film career, while more humble, was no less fascinating, and retained his ability to stand apart from the herd. As the late Roger Ebert noted, he had a knack for effortlessly portraying otherworldly characters (something he shared with his latter-day doppelganger, Tilda Swinton) and chose his projects carefully to reflect that fact.
David Lynch? Yeah, he was in one of those. Also one of the strangest versions of the Crucifixion story ever. And those were the comparatively tame ones. His most notable parts involved literal aliens, vampires and faeries: far-off visitors from strange lands full of wonders and horrors beyond imagining. He didn’t need a wig or a costume to sell us any of that. He just needed to be David Bowie.
And the strange sympathy he conveyed in his awe-inspiring musical library found another expression in his onscreen characters. They all held a sadness behind their eyes: a sense of seeing too much and knowing too much, and sensing the weight of it all crushing them flat. Even the villains. Especially the villains.
Take the Goblin King from Labyrinth, for example: possibly his best performance and certainly his most beloved. He lives to throw obstacles in our heroine’s path, as part of a plot to keep her baby brother in his enchanted realm forever. And yet he never came across as hostile, or even malevolent. Deceitful and mischievous yes, but always in the service of some great purpose. He just seemed so cool… and not just because he threw awesome parties. The character was a teacher as much as an adversary, and the actor, in countless subtle, almost invisible ways, made sure we all knew it.
His movies never felt like vanity projects either. Other rock and rollers, with a few exceptions, chose would-be star vehicles for their big-screen flings. Bowie, ever the changeling, waited for the right project, and often happily took a back seat to more experienced actors so long as the part was right for him. It helped him make such a lasting impression with such a comparatively small presence. Even his starring roles are marked by generosity. Look at how much of the screen he willingly gives to Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth, or the ways Andy Serkis feels more partner than assistant to his Frankenstein-for-hire in The Prestige.
The films were a garnish to his musical career, of course, but they held the same fascination at their core, and now that he’s gone, they shine an equally strong light on why we loved him so much. This was, above all, a man who understood his place the world: he held power with his boundless imagination and charisma, and he used them to spread joy and wisdom as far as he could.
He left in a puff of smoke it seems: hiding his illness from the world and departing a mere two days after birthday pictures depicted him smiling, relaxed and overflowing with joie de vivre. (And ye gods, another album!) Death held no terrors for someone like this. He understood too much of the universe for such foolishness. He dedicated his life, his art and his very soul to sharing that insight with the rest of us: a task whose success is reflected in the outpouring of love and grief we’ve seen the last 24 hours. RIP, Mr. Bowie. We’ll never see your like again.