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.
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:
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 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.
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
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.
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
» 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
David Bowie (Thomas Jerome Newton)
Candy Clark (Mary-Lou)
Buck Henry (Oliver Farnsworth)
Bernie Casey (Peters)
Jackson D. Kane (Professor Canutti)
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
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
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
Great Britain: British Lion
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.
Thirty-Three And A Third
Memory Of Hiroshima
- Stomu Yamashta
Songs Of The Humpback Whale
Recorded by Frank Watlington
Boys From The South
Hello, Mary Lou
Blue Grass Breakdown
- John Phillips
Excerpts from Planets Suite (Holst) - The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Blueberry Hill - Louis Armstrong
Enfantillages Pittoresques - Frank Glazer
A Fool Such As I - Hank Snow
Make The World Go Away - Jim Reeves
Try To Remember - The Kingston Trio
Blue Bayou - Roy Orbison
Silent Night - Robert Farnon
True Love - Bing Crosby & Grace Kelly
Love Is Coming Back - Genevieve Waite
Stardust - Artie Shaw
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.
I considered the music to be demo-ish and not final, although we were supposed to be making it final. All we produced was something substandard and Nic Roeg turned it down on those grounds…"
In November, Bowie was still under the impression that the music would be used.
Appearing on Soul Train Bowie was asked, "do you plan on doing any soundtracks for movies?", to which he replied, "I'm doing the soundtrack for The Man Who Fell
To Earth with a friend of mine, Paul Buckmaster".
In the event "Papa" John Philips was assigned the job of putting together a soundtrack in London.
Phillips had heard Bowie's score, and later described it as "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 and at one point played it to the musicians: "It was quite excellent", recalled guitarist Ricky Gardiner, "quite unlike anything else he's done".
Bowie sent a copy of Low to Roeg in 1977 with a note, "This is what I wanted to do for the film."