Alien with an agenda (David Bowie) lands in mid-1970’s New Mexico determined to rehydrate his drought-stricken homeworld.
Assuming the identity of Thomas Jerome Newton he harnesses advanced tech in order to amass the kind of corporate portfolio capable of making Donald Trump stamp on his wig in a fit of jealousy.
Can the vulnerable humanoid fend off the consumerist vampires, that suckle upon the aorta of the American dream, long enough to commence interplanetary syphoning ? Or will he be seduced into a servility coma by wild sex, multiferous television sets and Beefeater London Dry Gin ?
Thanks to the raw talent and bullish guidance of Nicholas Roeg, The Man Who Fell To Earth is far more than just an over-pimped Star vehicle, hired to give David Bowie’s ego a chauffeured tour of cultdom.
In a decade where the bookends of Performance and Bad Timing sandwiched one of the greatest horror films of all time Don’t Look Now, no other American director took on 70’s cinema with quite the same disdain for artistic convention.
He was also a hard taskmaster who knew his own mind, who on occasion, demanded a 24-hour non-stop stint from his actors.
No example of this bloody-minded minded vision is more potent than his standpoint regarding the soundtrack to this film. Despite being gifted with a lead actor who was the most creatively cognizant musician on the planet at the time, he rejected his services.
These shunned overtures were to become the mental building blocks of Low, the tracks Weeping Wall and Subterraneans are heavily rumoured to be all that survives of his aborted soundtrack attempt, and Station to Station. Both record sleeves sported artwork from The Man Who Fell To Earth, illustrating just how deeply Roeg and his film influenced Bowie.
Roeg instead hired someone gorging, even more, drugs than Bowie at the time – The Mamas & the Papas ex -leader and one man narcotics holocaust John Phillips. Despite imbibing opioids, four times an hour for two years, he actually managed to do a stellar job, as both composer and musical director, melding various composites of malleable Americana into one of the most innovative soundtracks of the 1970’s.
His injection of classic songs into the mix is nothing less than inspired. Whether wafting in the background or hogging the centre of attention, the whole flick is peppered with the kind of eclecticism that sees Gustav Holst and Cole Porter jostle for space with time honoured standards such as Blueberry Hill and Silent Night.
It all gels beautifully and totally vindicates Roeg’s musical gamble.
Although Bowie was moonlighting as a walking stimulants laboratory during the shoot, he remains utterly convincing as the androgynous strandee. Painfully underweight at the time of filming, and hopelessly buried in the drifts of a cocaine whiteout, his only option was to somehow channel this over accelerated mind state into his character.
Emitting a paradoxical hybrid of glassy-eyed confidence, and pleadingly animalistic fragility, Bowie’s performance is both riveting and uncomfortable – the unmistakable hallmarks of all genuine exhibitions of car-crash pathos.
Indeed, The Man Who Fell To Earth is at its most powerful when acting as a parable illustrating how loneliness can often be a catalyst for addiction.
Roeg himself was bewitched with Bowie’s antics, stating – “ I really came to believe that Bowie was a man who had come to Earth from another galaxy. His actual social behaviour was extraordinary – he hardly mixed with anyone at all. He seemed to be alone – which is what Newton is in the film – isolated and alone.”
A glaringly authentic beacon in the often foggy milieu of iconism it is, of course, positively impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part. Arguably his most durable film performance, Bowie did not so much inhabit the role, as use it as a temporary squat.
Part of the indelible charm of The Man Who Fell to Earth resides in its idiosyncratic imperfections and antiquated surrealism.
Not all the enigmatic dialogue has survived the passage of time, despite being cocooned by the insulating cloak of cultdom, and the supporting cast fall prey to sporadic outbreaks of creaking woodiness.
The sex scenes are often spectacularly awkward when they clearly yearn to be liberating. The flashbacks to Newton’s home planet are horribly dated and aesthetically bewildering. But then, Bowie dressed as a starved Teletubbie in a full body condom, boarding a giant sail-powered ceramic Scalextric, was always going to be a leap of faith.
Although Nicolas Roeg’s intellectually slippery Sci – Fi drama is undeniably a stroppy child of its era there is much to be said for how its core themes relate to modern times.
Despite emanating from a 1963 source novel, and celebrating its 40th anniversary, it still sharpens many thorny issues relevant to today’s vicious brand of modernism. As a result, it proves irresistible not to speculate how the enigmatic visitor from beyond the stars would have been treated in our current hyper-dystopia.
The double jeopardy of rampant social media and corporate rockstar culture would have inevitably seen Newton hermetically sealed in an unbreakable celebrity headlock.
Cresting on the welcome wave of understanding, that has fostered a sea change in the judgement and treatment of marginalised minorities, he would have surely attained a status of wonderment and fascinated adoration – not a million irony miles away from Bowie’s own Ziggy Stardust persona.
If you have never seen this lightning flash of a film, then this incandescent restoration provides the perfect opportunity. If you are already a fan, then this dazzling release provides the perfect excuse to revisit it.
Film – ★★★★1/2 | Package – [rating=5]|Bradley Hadcroft
Sci- Fi/Drama/ | UK, 1976 | 139 min | 18 | Studiocanal | UK DVD 24 Oct. 2016 | Dir. Nicolas Roeg| Cast. David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark, Buck Henry, Bernie Casey | BUY