In the prelude to a climactic moment of “Inglourious Basterds” when a disparate group of allies are about to unleash a violent ambush against Adolph Hitler and his Nazi thugs at a Parisian movie theater, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), the projectionist cum warrior, applies war paint while David Bowie’s “Cat People” purrs on the soundtrack. Wait, what? Isn’t this 1944? What’s David Bowie doing here? He wasn’t born until 1947! And it’s not even that “Inglourious Basterds” is a fictionalized version of actual events, an exorbitantly embellished revenge epic, but that Bowie, who just passed away at the age of 69, transcended time and space. Tarantino, ever the shrewd purveyor of movie soundtracks knew this, and he knew that by going to Bowie in that pivotal moment, it would fit right in, a time and place that both had existed and never had.
Deploying pop music on movie soundtracks is a bona fide skill, as Q.T. so routinely goes to show, a skill that should be rewarded come Oscar time, as I’ve long contended, but that’s a subject for another sermon. The perfect bit of pop tuneage at just right the moment can compliment the image by helping to deepen the emotional response, regardless of whether or not the words in the song match up with the mood or the context of the moment on screen. The inestimable Bowie, who left behind a treasure trove of majestical musical wonders, was a go-to for many a movie director seeking someone to help them tell their story. Often the aid Bowie lent was of the most obvious if the nevertheless strikingly apropos kind, like my beloved Frances Halladay rushing down the street in a fit of spastic joy, which was itself an homage to Denis Lavant doing the same thing in “Bad Blood” to the same song. And while we could drop these references all day, as an artist (shit, as a human, or thereabouts), Bowie was never as straightforward as “Heroes” blasting in the Fort Pitt Tunnel during “Perks of Being a Wallflower.” He shifted styles and sounds and even identities, and that’s why so often his music’s deployment on screen was so much better when it wasn’t as straight-forward.
Like the indelible moment in “Almost Famous” when Cameron Crowe makes the transition from a weepy-eyed, homesick William Miller to the Swingos Hotel in Cleveland by inserting those indelible chords from Bowie’s “I’m Waiting For the Man.” It’s not just that the song sounds like the road, which it does, but that’s an indicator of rock ‘n roll as an instrument for commune, how Bowie could be Reed and Reed could be Bowie and they each could be themselves and it was all wonderful.
Bowie was still watching over us in the 90’s, as Amy Heckerling deftly demonstrated in her classic “Clueless.” Remember the part when the immortal Cher Horwitz is decrying the abhorrent fashion sense of all the teen dudes infesting the school grounds all around her? Remember the song playing over this sequence? It’s “All The Young Dudes”, the Mott the Hoople song that was written by Bowie and and performed for “Clueless” by World Party. It’s a song that carries with it the notion of a paean to disaffected youth, though Bowie himself has contradicted that stance, considering the song was originally intended for his own concept album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and Spiders From Mars” about Earth’s inevitable demise. Bowie has said the song was meant to spread the word regarding that demise, and whether you take that as gospel is up to you but it certainly paints the moment in “Clueless” in an even niftier light. These boys and their baggy pants are portending the apocalypse, and while I don’t have Mr. Bowie’s exact thoughts on the film right at hand, I wonder if he found some delight in that idea.
I also don’t know what he thought of Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic” and how Seu George gave life to so many of Bowie’s songs, in Portuguese and alone on acoustic guitar, often within the context of the film itself, like he was doing a solo café show constantly on the fringes of the actual film. That movie was about a collective of Jacques Costeau-esqe misfits, spearheaded by Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), forced to reckon with age and the dying embers of success. Those embers emblematically give way in a sequence where his ex-wife – “the brains behind Team Zissou” – leaves before their final voyage, bidding “Bon voyage” when Steve asks her not to say goodbye, a sequence as earnest as it is absurd, because every one of our own self-involved reckonings with mortality are as earnest as they are absurd, and George performing “Rock ‘n Roll Suicide” with a plaintive cry effortlessly props the whole sequence up; the song makes you feel the scene’s pain in spite of yourself.
But the more I ponder Bowie’s music’s place at the movies, the more I come back to a moment not even involving his music as the most quintessential. I come back to how the words of Bowie were employed by John Hughes to open his seminal 1980's opus to teenage disconnect, “The Breakfast Club”. Because Bowie, as Ann Powers noted in her moving obit for the artist, liked to term his music “helpful music”, and Bowie, he of the shape-shifting personalities and sounds, could be helpful to anyone, be they a criminal, be they a princess, be they a brain, be they an athlete, be they a basket case. He was everyone’s friend.