BOWIE GOLDEN YEARS

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THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH

 
 
 

When Nicholas Roeg happened to see Bowie profiled in the landmark 1975 documentary Cracked Actor he realised he was looking at someone who, without any real experience in film, was perfect for the lead role in Roeg's upcoming feature, The Man Who Fell To Earth.

This character, Thomas Jerome Newton, possessed many of the qualities Bowie was displaying in Cracked Actor — cerebral, edgy, enigmatic — a fragile alien uncomfortable in a new climate. Uncomfortable in his own skin.

At the time Bowie was taking the gargantuan Diamond Dogs roadshow across America, which "had always been a mythland," in Bowie's words. Now costs were spiralling but the show had to go on, and he persevered.

Reflecting on his situation from the back of a limo Bowie notices a fly in his carton of skim milk (his staple diet in those days) and observes:

"There's a fly floating around in my milk and it is a foreign body and it's getting a lot of milk! That's kind of how I felt — a foreign body and I couldn't help but soak it up."

The analogy must have been obvious for Roeg: the alien/stranger/foreigner drifting through a vast new landscape, determinedly selling his wares and being trapped by the worldly excess which they provide.

Newton's odyssey ends with his examination/dissection by ignorant well-meaning doctors and a descent into the mundanity of gin dependency. In Bowie's case his dissection was at the hands of the media who were usually amused or perplexed by this pale gaunt figure espousing the simplest of ambitions:

"To keep me interested, to keep the people who come to see me or buy my records interested and excited as well."

Unable to pigeonhole him they treated him as some kind of gimmick that they expected would fade away. By the end of the tour however, Bowie, like Newton, had become an imposing figure on the scene, and in Roeg's eyes, his ideal Newton.

Roeg contacted Bowie and a meeting was set at Bowie's NY apartment. Bowie only remembered the appointment after four hours had passed and assumed Roeg would have given up and left. When Bowie finally arrived, the director was there, patient in the knowledge that Bowie was Newton. After this meeting Bowie agreed to sign on for the project.

Bowie had been offered many movie roles in the past year but they were mostly ludicrous exploitation flicks featuring a feather cut alien with a guitar. But here was a respected director with a role that must have felt very natural for Bowie. He would just be himself.

Going over the script with Roeg

According to Roeg, Bowie threw himself into it, always on time and putting in a performance which everyone was happy with, even Bowie. It would be the only film he would go out of his way to promote (using stills for the sleeves of Station to Station and Low).

The remarkable thing about the Bowie film canon is that every character ends up being degraded or martyred. It is perhaps a sign that Bowie has always felt like a marked man and has by nature flaunted this to dare his persecutors.

Production : June through August 1975

Production on the film had been scheduled to last eleven weeks. Bowie and friends stayed at the Hilton Inn in Albuquerque for the main part of the filming, only making rare excursions to the bar and rarely out of the house except for filming.

Between shooting Bowie read, practiced filming on a 16mm newsreel camera Roeg gave him and wrote short stories.

He also wrote new songs. Some songs were intended for the soundtrack of the film, others for Station To Station. According to Bowie the short stories will never be published. Bowie later spoke of a visit to Carisbad Caves in Artesia, New Mexico to an American journalist, Rex Reed:

'It was completely dark except for one hole in the top. Suddenly there was a whistling sound like rats screaming. Thousands of bats flew out of the rocks and up through the hole. They return every morning at 4am. I'd love to do my next concert there, with thousands of vampire bats descending on the audience's heads.'

 

Shooting the pool sequence with Bernie Casey (Peters)

Filming also had its problems - cameras were jamming for no reason, one scene had to be shot at an old Aztec burial ground, near a camp site of rowdy local Hell's Angels.

Drinking a glass of milk on set, Bowie noticed, 'Some gold liquid swimming around in shiny swirls inside the glass'. Bowie was ill for two days afterwards and is still to this day unsure of what actually happened. No trace of any foreign element was detected in tests though there were six witnesses who said they had seen the strange matter in the bottom of the glass. Already in an extremely fragile state, Bowie felt the whole location had 'very bad Karma'.

Reading a biography of Buster Keaton in preparation for a planned biopic

Other projects were simultaneously firing his imagination, such as a mooted biopic of Buster Keaton, drawing incessantly and his autobiography, tentatively titled The Return of the Thin White Duke.

Synopsis of the film

A space traveller plummets to earth, landing in a lake in New Mexico. He drinks water and thinks of his barren planet, where his wife and two children are dying of thirst.

Using the name Thomas Jerome Newton, he goes to New York to speak to lawyer Oliver Farnsworth. Farnsworth is amazed that Newton has nine basic patents. He will be able to earn $300 million in three years. "I need more," says Newton, not explaining why. He enlists Farnsworth's aid to build a great corporation, World Enterprises. Even by playing fairly, World Enterprises should soon make some other corporations obsolete.

Nathan Bryce, a divorced Chicago chemistry professor, spends his time making love to his female students. He becomes fascinated with World Color's self-developing film, which can be bought very inexpensively (the camera is included). He wonders who the reclusive Newton is and starts making inquiries.

Using the alias Mr. Sussex, Newton travels to New Mexico. At his hotel he meets Mary-Lou, a maid who helps him when he becomes sick from a fast elevator ride. She becomes his constant companion and lover. She brings him a television set, and influences him to drink gin. Eventually, he watches many television sets at once and drinks incessantly. Still missing his family, he initiates a space program with all the money he has made.

Farnsworth hires Bryce to come to New Mexico and work on the secret project. Bryce lives in a cabin on the other side of the lake from Newton and Mary-Lou. He secretly takes X rays of Newton and discovers that Newton's form is totally alien. Newton, who can see X-rays, readily admits he is an alien. He says he has no intention of causing harm to earthlings.

 

Bowie, Candy Clark and Tony Mascia

The project is taking too long. All Newton does is drink and watch television. He had watched American TV for years on his planet but never guessed that it revealed nothing about the human condition. As he becomes more human, he feels life is futile.

His relationship with Mary-Lou deteriorates when she demands more attention. He strips off his earthling guise, and his alien form terrifies her. She can't make love to him, although she does love him. Farnsworth buys Mary-Lou off to get her away from Newton. She doesn't want the money – she wants Tommy.

Rival companies pressure Farnsworth to sell World Enterprises. He refuses. Farnsworth and his gay lover Trevor are hurled through the window of their New York apartment to their deaths. Newton is taken prisoner. For years he is held in a deserted suite in a hotel and subjected to painful tests. World Enterprises goes bankrupt. Bryce begins to work for Peters, who initiated Newton's kidnapping. Bryce and Mary-Lou marry.

Newton escapes his prison once no one cares about him anymore. He holds no animosity towards anyone. He records an album called The Visitor, which he hopes his wife, who may already have died from thirst, will hear. Knowing he can never go back home, he can never save his dying family, that he has failed, Newton is full of self-pity. He will spend the rest of his life on earth as a drunkard.

Further reading:

» Creem report on the set during production, published December 1975

 

Photographed on set by Steve Schapiro.

Later used for cover of Rolling Stone February 12, 1976

US poster

United States

1976

Running time: 138 minutes

Colour

2.35:1

Cast

David Bowie (Thomas Jerome Newton)

Rip Torn (Nathan Bryce)

Candy Clark (Mary-Lou)

Buck Henry (Oliver Farnsworth)

Bernie Casey (Peters)

Jackson D. Kane (Professor Canutti)

Rick Riccardo (Trevor)

Tony Mascia (Arthur)

Captain James Lovell (himself)

Director: Nicolas Roeg

Producers: Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings

Screenplay: Paul Mayersburg

From the novel by Walter Tevis

Cinematography: Anthony Richmond

Music director: John Phillips

Editor: Graeme Clifford

Filming locations:

New Mexico USA: Albuquerque, Artesia, Fenton Lake State Park (455 Fenton Lake Road, Jemez Springs), Madrid, Roswell, White Sands Missile Range, near Alamogordo, White Sands National Monument, near Alamogordo

General release:

UK: 18 March 1976

Netherlands: 26 May 1976

USA: 28 May 1976 (New York)

West Germany: June 1976 (Berlin International Film Festival)

Denmark: 7 June 1976

Australia: 25 June 1976

West Germany: 19 August 1976

Sweden: 11 October 1976

France: 6 July 1977

Distribution:

Great Britain: British Lion

USA: Cinema 5

Cinema 5 cut the picture when it was first distributed in America.

Prints ran at 117, 120 or 125 minutes, according to different sources.

In 1980 a new regime at Cinema 5 restored the picture to its original length.

Music credits:

Poker Dice (Yamashta)

Thirty-Three And A Third (Yamashta)

Mandala (Yamashta)

Wind Words (Yamashta)

One Way (Yamashta)

Memory Of Hiroshima (Yamashta)

Performed by Stomu Yamashta

Songs Of The Humpback Whale

Recorded by Frank Watlington

Boys From The South (Phillips)

Hello, Mary Lou (Pitney)

Rhumba Boogie (Phillips)

Blue Grass Breakdown (Phillips)

Performed by John Phillips

Excerpts from–Planets Suite (Hoist)

Performed by The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Blueberry Hill (Rose, Stick, Lewis)

Performed by Louis Armstrong

Enfantillages Pittoresques

Performed by Frank Glazer

A Fool Such As I (Trader)

Performed by Hank Snow

Make The World Go Away (Cochran)

Performed by Jim Reeves

Try To Remember (Schmidt, Jones)

Performed by The Kingston Trio

Blue Bayou (Orbison, Melson)

Performed by Roy Orbison

Silent Night (Mohr, Gruber)

Performed by Robert Farnon

True Love (Porter)

Performed by Bing Crosby & Grace Kelly

Love Is Coming Back (Phillips)

Performed by Genevieve Waite

Stardust (Carmichael, Parrish)

Performed by Artie Shaw

The soundtrack album

No soundtrack album was ever released, despite the fact that the back cover of the 1976 Pan edition (released to tie in with the film) states that the soundtrack is available on RCA.

As it went to print, that would have been the case. Bowie had originally assumed he would be composing the music for the film (which would naturally be released by RCA).

The original plan was that RCA would contribute to the film and Bowie would provide a soundtrack that included singles that would serve to promote the film.

During the shoot, Bowie was asked, "Are you doing any music for the film?" Bowie responded:

"Yeah, all of it. That'll be the next album, the soundtrack. I'm working on it now, doing some writing. But we won't record until all the shooting's finished. I expect the film should be released around March, and we want the album out ahead of that, so I should say maybe January or February."

In September 1975, following the recording of Station to Station, Paul Buckmaster was contacted by Roeg and Michael Deeley (on Bowie's recommendation) to participate in the sessions in Cherokee Studios.

From David Buckley's 2007 Mojo interview with Buckmaster:

"There were a couple of medium tempo rock intrumental pieces, with simple motifs and riffy kind of grooves, with a lin-up of David's rhythm section (Carlos Alomar et al) plus J Peter Robinson on Fender-Rhodes-Fender piano and me on cello and some synth overdubs, using ARP Odyssey and Solina.

There were some more slow and spacey cues with synth, Rhodes and cello; and a couple of wierder atonal cues using synths and percussion. There was a ballad instrumental by David that appears on Low (Subterraneans).

It was performed by David, me and J Peter on various keyboards. There was also a piece I wrote and performed using some beautifully made mbiras (African thumb pianos) I had purchased earlier that year, plus cello, all done by multiple overdubbing.

And a song David wrote, played and sang, called Wheels, which had a gentle sort of melancholy mood to it. The title referred to the alien train from his character Newton's home world."

Buckmaster believes the music wasn't used for three main reasons:

"Firstly it was just not up to the standard of composing and performance needed for a good movie; secondly, I don't think it fitted well to the picture; and lastly, it wasn't really what Nic Roeg was looking for."

From "Low" by Hugo Wicken:

"I considered the music to be demo-ish and not final, although we were supposed to be making it final," Buckmaster told Bowie biographer David Buckley. "All we produced was something substandard and Nic Roeg turned it down on those grounds…"

As for the quality of Bowie's work, those who did hear it were impressed. (John) Phillips found it "haunting and beautiful, with chimes, Japanese bells, and what sounded like electronic winds and waves". Bowie had the soundtrack with him during the 'Low' sessions for work on "Subterraneans", and at one point played it to the musicians: "It was quite excellent", recalled guitarist Ricky Gardiner, "quite unlike anything else he's done".

In the event "Papa" John Philips was assigned the job of putting together a soundtrack in London.

In November, Bowie was still under the impression that the music would be used.

During his appearance on Soul Train he is asked, "do you plan on doing any soundtracks for movies?"

Bowie replies, "I'm doing the soundtrack for The Man Who Fell To Earth with a friend of mine, Paul Buckmaster".

Bowie sent a copy of Low to Roeg in 1977 with a note, "This is what I wanted to do for the film."

   

POSTERS

US teaser poster

USA teaser

US poster

USA

UK poster

United Kingdom

France poster

France

France poster

Germany

Turkey poster

Turkey

Italy poster

Italy

Japan poster

Japan

Yugoslavia poster

Yugoslavia

 
   

Original George Underwood illustration for the 1976 Pan edition of the Walter Tevis novel (right)

 

PRODUCTION STILLS

 

LOBBY CARDS

 

VIDEO RELEASES

US VHS

UK VHS

1998 US DVD
( Fox Lorber)

2002 UK DVD
(Anchor Bay)

2003 US DVD
(Anchor Bay)

2005 US DVD
(Criterion)

The Anchor Bay DVDs feature an all-new 24-minute featurette called "Watching the Alien"

The Criterion edition boasts:

Performance, a compilation of new video interviews with actors Candy Clark and Rip Torn

New video interview with screenwriter Paul Mayersberg

Audio interviews with costume designer May Routh and production designer Brian Eatwell

Multiple stills galleries

Gallery of posters from Roeg's films

Trailers and television spots

An exclusive reprint of Walter Tevis's original novel

"I think that Mr Newton has had enough…"

   

1974  1975  1976  1977  1978  1979  1980 

DAVID LIVE  |  YOUNG AMERICANS  |  STATION TO STATION  |  LOW  |  HEROES  |  LODGER  |  SCARY MONSTERS

CRACKED ACTOR  |  THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH  |  JUST A GIGOLO  |  THE ELEPHANT MAN

ARTICLES  |  TV APPEARANCES