The last several years have seen a bevy of documentaries aiming to shine a light on musicians never given their due. From the backup singers in 20 Feet From Stardom, to the session musicians in The Wrecking Crew and Standing in the Shadows of Motown, and even the managers in Supermench and Lambert & Stamp, we see great artistry from talents who never became household names.
Classic rock enthusiasts may already know the name Mick Ronson as one of the original Spiders from Mars, but Beside Bowie pushes him out from the shadow of Ziggy Stardust. Director Jon Brewer makes an effective case for “Ronno” as the catalyst for Bowie’s harder-edged sound and a gifted, under appreciated producer/arranger for various other artists, most notably Mott the Hoople, Lou Reed and John Mellencamp.
Brewer, a music business and documentary veteran, weaves interviews, voiceovers and some nifty historical footage to paint Ronson as a somewhat casual genius who had little inkling of how much his “melodic and ferocious” playing would impress the young David Bowie in need of a new guitarist.
Though the “Ziggy and the Spiders” phase would last a mere 18 months, its influence is still felt today, a result of Bowie’s legendary pivot from the “acoustic glam” of Hunky Dory to the hard-driving sound of Ziggy. The inspiration for that shift, according to Brewer and the succession of musicians he interviews, was Ronson.
Perhaps understandably, much of the film’s early going leans more Bowie than Ronson, but the most effective moments come later, when Brewer slows down long enough to clearly illustrate Ronson’s insightful contributions to iconic music.
Lou Reed listening to isolated instrumental tracks from his Transformer album (produced by Ronson and Bowie), Ian Hunter remembering how Ronson helped save Mott the Hoople, or Mellencamp crediting Ronson for the arrangement that made Jack and Diane a smash all add needed layers that resonate beyond the usual rock cliches.
The lack of any recent perspectives from Ronson, who died from liver cancer in 1993, is sadly evident, but Beside Bowie still succeeds in its mission: elevating the status of a talent that has long deserved elevating.
Quick, who said this: “I went to Detroit with a tab of mescaline and a shovel.”
Who but Iggy Pop?
Effortlessly odd and forever fascinating, Pop and his band, the seminal punks The Stooges, are the subject of Jim Jarmusch’s new documentary, Gimme Danger.
Rock docs forever champion their subjects, frequently making a case for someone’s misunderstood and underappreciated genius. The fact that this kind of treatment could possibly be needed for arguably the first ever punk band, a group who influenced The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, David Bowie and dozens of others – well, it’s just disheartening, isn’t it?
While the story – from Ann Arbor trailer park to punk stardom to Ann Arbor trailer park – fits with the traditional “Behind the Music” approach, it’s never wise to expect the expected with Jarmusch.
Sure, the filmmaker pieces together vintage Stooges performances with interviews, but Gimme Danger is awash in the kind of wry cinematic mastery that has become Jarmusch’s trademark. Interviews with Pop take place in his home, the singer sometimes perched on a golden throne bedecked by skulls, sometimes barefoot in the laundry room in front of a washer/dryer set.
Likewise, on-again, off-again Stooge guitarist James Williamson sits through his interviews, guitar in hand, in a public men’s room.
Why? Why not?
Jarmusch has always brought an unusual perspective to his films, and The Stooges are an unusual subject. The pairing works, and for all Jarmusch’s droll use of animation, Three Stooges bits and vintage advertising as backdrop to Stooge insanity, his own affection and respect for the band is always evident.
Indeed, very early in the film, he proclaims The Stooges, “The greatest rock and roll band of all time.”
Jim Jarmusch is a native Ohioan who loves The Stooges.
Oh my God – we have so much in common!
His relationship with Pop goes back decades, since the singer co-starred in Jarmusch’s Dead Man and an early Coffee and Cigarettes short. In both, Pop (billed here as Jim Osterberg as Iggy Pop) haunts and bewilders with his sinewy frame and enormous eyes.
Oddly enough, Gimme Danger neglects some of the more jarring and lurid details of the Pop life. Jarmusch remains reverent throughout the film, focusing exclusively on The Stooges’ musical history. Almost quizzically missing is detail of Pop and crew’s self-destructive behavior, Pop’s infamous stage antics, or any mention of his solo musical or dramatic career.
Nope, Jarmusch wants you to realize that the world’s first punk band – as infamous record scout Danny Fields notes – reinvented music as we know it.
The rock star/horror movie crossover seems a natural extension of the darkness and cool of each, and it has happened countless times. Some of the crossovers are almost too obvious – Ozzy Osbourne in Trick or Treat or Grace Jones as an aggressive stripper/vampire in Vamp. John Mellencamp, Iggy Pop, Cherie Curie, Jon Bon Jovi, and, of course, Meat Loaf – these rockers and others have lined up to dance with the dead.
But here are the best rock star performances in horror.
Let us just get this out of the way now – we don’t care for this film. Yes, John Carpenter is a master of horror, but this film felt stale in ’87 and it has not aged well.
However, perhaps the greatest stroke of genius Carpenter had when filming was to cast Alice Cooper as the leader of the demon-possessed band of shopping cart people.
As scientists and theologians hole up inside an abandoned church in a very bad neighborhood, they begin to notice the attention of the silent, menacing homeless man outside. And every time they look, he has more friends. It is possibly the only genuinely chilling image in the film, and much of the success is due to Cooper’s effortlessly menacing presence.
Alice Cooper’s stage persona makes him a perfect fit in horror – perhaps moreso than any other rock star. Indeed, he’s gone on to play Freddy Krueger’s father, a vampire, and all manner of supernatural lowlife in film. But for his most unsettling turn, all he needed was a disheveled appearance and his own natural presence.
5. Tom Waits: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Francis Ford Coppola took his shot at Dracula in ’92. How’d he do?
Cons: Keanu Reeves cannot act. Winona Ryder can act – we’ve seen her act – but she shows no aptitude for it here, and lord she should not do accents. Anthony Hopkins has always enjoyed the taste of scenery, but his performance here is just ham-fisted camp.
Pros: Tom Waits as Renfield – nice! Creepy yet sympathetic, with that haggard voice, Waits brings a wizened mania to the character that’s more than refreshing. Likewise, Gary Oldman, who can chomp scenery with the best chewers in the biz, munches here with great panache. He delivers a perversely fascinating performance. His queer old man Dracula, in particular – asynchronous shadow and all – offers a lot of creepy fun.
Still, there’s no looking past Ryder, whose performance is high school drama bad.
4. Henry Rollins: He Never Died (2015)
With a funny shuffle step and a blank stare, Henry Rollins announces Jack, anti-hero of the noir/horror mash up He Never Died, as an odd sort.
Jack, you see, has kind of always been here. The “here” in question at the moment is a dodgy one bedroom, walking distance from the diner where he eats and the church where he plays bingo. An exciting existence, no doubt, but this mindlessness is disturbed by a series of events: an unexpected visit, a needed ally with an unfortunate bookie run-in, and a possible love connection with a waitress.
From the word go, He Never Died teems with deadpan humor and unexpected irony. Casting Rollins in the lead, for instance, suggests something the film actively avoids: energy. The star never seethes, and even his rare hollers are muted, less full of anger than primal necessity.
Rollins’s performance is strong, offering Jack as a solitary figure who clings to all things mind numbing as a way to pass the time without complication or human interaction. As a survival mechanism, he’s all but forgotten how to behave around humanity, a species he regards without needless sentimentality.
3. Sting: Brimstone & Treacle (1982)
Easily the best acting of Sting’s career, his con man Martin turns out to be a far more malevolent presence in the Bates household than poor Norma (Joan Plowright – wonderful as always) and Tom (Denholm Elliott) could imagine.
Martin feigns a fainting spell on the street long enough to lift Tom’s wallet. When he returns it – cash light – to the address on the license, he quickly eyeballs the surroundings and claims to be the fiancé of their bedridden daughter Pattie (Suzanna Hamilton).
The film mines layer after layer of repression – societal, sexual, religious and other – as it plays on your constantly expanding sense of dread. Sting is wonderful. His playfully evil performance and the way he eyes the audience/camera gives him the air of something far more unwholesome than your run of the mill conman. Maybe even something supernatural.
2. Debbie Harry: Videodrome (1983)
As bizarre as anything he ever made – even Cosmopolis – Videodrome shows an evolution in David Cronenberg’s preoccupations with body horror, media, and technology as well as his progress as a filmmaker.
James Woods plays sleazy TV programmer Max Renn, who pirates a program he believes is being taped in Malaysia – a snuff show, where people are slowly tortured to death in front of viewers’ eyes.
Punk goddess Deborah Harry co-stars as a seductress intrigued by the slimy Renn. Harry is, as always, effortlessly sultry – a quality that works queasyingly well in this Cronenberg head trip.
But the real star is Cronenberg, who explores his own personal obsessions, dragging us willingly down the rabbit hole with him. Corporate greed, zealot conspiracy, medical manipulation all come together in this hallucinatory insanity that could only make sense with the Canadian auteur at the wheel.
Long live the new flesh!
1. Bowie: The Hunger (1983)
Tony Scott’s seductive vampire love story has a little bit of everything: slaughter, girl-on-girl action, ’80s synth/goth tunage, David Bowie. What more can you ask?
Actually the film’s kind of a sultry, dreamily erotic mess. Oh, the gauzy, filmy curtains. It looks great, but the internal logic of the vampirism as a disease doesn’t work very well. Lots of meaningless parallels with some experiment apes don’t help.
Catharine Deneuve is the old world vampire Miriam, David Bowie is her lover. But he suddenly begins aging, and she needs to find a replacement. Enter Susan Sarandon as a medical specialist in unusual blood diseases and a fine actress who’s not above smooching other girls.
There are three reasons people still watch it: Bowie, Catherine Deneuve’s seduction of Susan Sarandon (classy!), and the great dark-wave Bauhaus number Bela Lugosi’s Dead. Together it’s a Goth Trifecta! And Goths do love them some vampires.
We lost the incomparable David Bowie last night, a figure whose impression on this planet is hard to overstate.
We’re all familiar with David Bowie’s contributions to the field of music as a god among men, but how well do you know him as an actor? Unable to play an ordinary man, it’s no surprise Bowie glided enigmatically from one film to the next, routinely representing eternal youth and alienation.
Though not every film choice has been a jewel, here is a handful of recommendations, along with a good Bowie tune to get you in the mood for each movie.
THE HUNGER (1983)
Director Tony Scott’s first major film is a stylish if dated vampire fable.
A beautiful true vampire is in need of a new human lover, because her current mate’s age is finally catching up to him. Atmospheric and sensual, the film is best known for Catherine Deneuve/Susan Sarandon love scenes, but Bowie is hauntingly memorable as Deneuve’s doomed lover John Blaylock.
Quote: Are you making a pass at me, Mrs. Blaylock? Song: Scary Monsters
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)
Scorsese’s once-controversial crucifixion movie sees Christ as a masochistic everyman, exemplifying moral struggle rather than biblical “accuracy.” Bowie’s small but pivotal role as Pontius Pilate (actually a combination of Pilate and Herod), is understated and effective. The film is more literary than literal, and benefits from a dreamy quality created through Michael Ballhaus’s cinematography and Peter Gabriel’s score.
Quote: It simply doesn’t matter how you want to change things; we don’t want them changed. Song: The Man Who Sold the World
MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE (1983)
This powerful culture clash tale is the underrated story of WWII British prisoners of war in a Japanese camp, perhaps more meaningful now than when it was released in 1983. Haunting cinematography and score, as well as subtle performances and Nagisa Oshima’s fearless direction, combine to create an intensely emotional film. Bowie’s Maj. Celliers, the most layered and provocative character, is the most polished performance of his acting career.
Quote: There are times when victory is very hard to take. Song: Heroes
This meandering biopic of NY artist Jean Michel Basquiat is buoyed by one of the most reliably brilliants casts ever assembled: Jeffrey Wright, Benicio del Toro, Christopher Walken, Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, Parker Posey, and Willem Dafoe. David Bowie more than holds his own amidst this remarkable group, surprisingly insightful as Basquiat’s only true friend, Andy Warhol. An absolutely killer soundtrack gives scenes a little added punch.
Quote: You kids. You drink red wine with fish. You can do anything. Song: Andy Warhol
MR. RICE’S SECRET (2000)
This rarely seen gem of a children’s film is a low budget Canadian fantasy told without condescension to a pre-pubescent audience. Bowie plays Mr. Rice, wise and mysterious friend to a terminally ill boy. Though the film has its clunky, almost TV movie moments, on the whole it’s a refreshing and interesting coming of age film, made even more poignant with tempered morbidity.
Quote: Every man needs a good blue suit. Song: My Death
THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)
A very sympathetic, delicate Bowie finds himself on an alien planet (Earth) in this post-modern tale of the trappings of modern life. This eccentric film, co-starring Candy Clark, Rip Torn, and Buck Henry, could be a time capsule of 1976. The film, though sometimes hard to follow, benefits from director Nicolas Roeg’s mastery behind the camera, but it is Bowie’s performance that makes Man memorable.
Quote: Mr. Newton, are you crazy? Song: Loving the Alien
THE PRESTIGE (2006)
Maybe an unusual casting choice by director Christopher Nolan for the role Nicola Tesla, but in a film built around illusion, Bowie delivers an impressive mix of the legendary and the enigmatic
Quote: You’re familiar with the phrase, ‘Man’s reach exceeds his grasp’? Song: Life on Mars?
A cameo, yes, but it made perfect sense! Who else to judge the walkoff?
Quote: I believe I might be of service Song: Fashion
Mr. Bowie, you are and will continue to be deeply missed.