Songs That Could Be Movies: David Bowie

Hollywood has covered all the major adaptations.

It won’t be long before they run out of books, comics and other films to nick ideas from. Then they'll have to turn to much shorter narratives for inspiration.

One day, studio suits will be weaving movie trilogies from three-minute pop songs.

In that spirit, welcome to the first instalment of our new regular feature – Songs That Could Be Movies.

And who better to begin with than the king of the kooky narrative, David Bowie?

The Song: Diamond Dogs

Possibly one of the richest, most complex narratives of all of Bowie’s songs, Diamond Dogs features Halloween Jack, a character on the run from the law in a futuristic, dystopian Manhattan.

Released in 1974, the lyrics are super-visual, super-slick and super-duper.

Bowie gets extra brownie points (or should we say, Browning points…) for referencing Freaks, the 1932 masterpiece by Tod Browning.

It’s gothic, sinister, and very, very screenplay-adaptation-friendly.

The Movie:

Halloween Jack is a notorious criminal, living on the rooftops of a post-apocalyptic metropolis and getting up to all sorts of mischievous scrapes.

The Diamond Dogs enforce the law, yet they’re horrifically corrupt. Think Blade Runner meets Sin City meets Batman Begins.

It’s slick and noirish with a voice-over and lots of rain. Beautiful women pout and purr. Expendable characters are created and expended. Baddies are brutally butchered and Halloween Jack twists and turns, in and out of danger, like a twisty turny thing.

The Cast:

Crafty old Hollywood casts the prince of gothic heroism (and of hysterical teenage goths), Robert Pattinson, in the lead role. It works, but only because there are dozens more interesting characters to soup it up a bit.

It’s a star-studded cast, with Harvey Keitel as the lead ‘Dog’ and bit-parts going to Brittany Murphy, Salma Hayek and other busty lovelies. Tarantino cameos, because he’s directing, and can’t help himself.

Sample Dialogue:

Some Hussy: (To Jack) Come out of the garden, baby. You’ll catch your death in the fog.

Next: Love You Till Tuesday


The Song: Love You Till Tuesday

Released in 1967 (before Bowie made it proper big), Love You Till Tuesday is all about falling head-over heels in love.

Bowie seems really excited about this love. He does lots of silly things like hiding and trees and waving flags. You know, the usual lovey-dovey stuff.

It never made it into the UK charts. This might have been because it was bonkers. Utterly bonkers.

For some reason, Bowie’s love has an expiry date. We don’t ever really figure out why, and there’s not much of a plot.

It’s up to Hollywood to remedy that.

The Movie:

Set in a sunny west-coast beach town, the film centres around Ben, a single twenty-something, who is out to find the woman of his dreams. Sadly, Ben was previously involved in an accident, which has left him with a rare form of amnesia.

This dictates that his short term memory lasts only a week before it’s erased completely. He forgets everything – including, predictably, relationships.

Ben goes through a long line of girlfriends, promptly ditching them when the week’s up and his memory is wiped clean. Then he starts all over again.

The film doesn’t dwell on technicalities surrounding the accident or brain injury, as the entire notion is as impervious to scientific scrutiny as a sock is to runny dog poo.

But, hey-ho, who needs logic when you’ve got a (seemingly endless) stream of fit Californian girls, each eager to prove a more memorable girlfriend than the last? Cue pop-punk montage.

The Cast:

Ben is played by Ben Stiller. It’s not too much of a stretch for him – he doesn’t even have to learn a new name or anything.

Plus, the character’s pretty generic, pretty, you know, nothing really, so requires an actor who’s not going to deviate too much from that mould.

Jack Black co-stars as Harry, Ben’s feckless loser of a roommate. Ben doesn’t remember Harry, but it’s okay, because there’s a hilarious running joke where Harry keeps having to explain who he is.

When Casey, Ben’s high school sweetheart (played by Heather Graham) turns up, out of the blue, they fall in love all over again. And so for the big question: will their love outlive the week? (Of course it will.)

Sample Dialogue:

Ben: I’ll always love you –
Casey: –Until your love runs dry.

Next: The Man Who Sold The World


The Song: The Man Who Sold The World

This is the title track of Bowie’s third album – if you don’t know it, you’ll know the Nirvana cover.

It’s generally thought to be an observation on the nature of split personality disorders, though some (not us) would argue that it’s just a load of nonsensical waffle (it’s not, it’s brilliant. Forgive us, Bowie).

The Movie:

David is a lonely, earnest undertaker who owns and runs his own small-time funeral firm in a quiet, middle-of-nowhere town in 1930s New Mexico.

When he bumps into a man he’s just buried, his life is turned upside down.

The rendez-vous has a huge impact on him – the ‘Man Who Sold The World’ haunts him for weeks, delivering mind-boggling existential monologues to a baffled David (and an even more baffled audience).

David endeavours to seek spiritual enlightenment, saddling up his funeral horse and setting off into the desert, though no matter how far he travels, he never reaches another sign of civilisation.

Eventually, even though he’s been going in a straight line, he ends up back at the site of his own town, which no longer exists (did it ever really?) and is marked only by a road sign and his own horse’s hoof-prints. Don’t expect laughs.

The Cast:

The Man Who Sold The World stars Sam Rockwell, who is engaging enough that the audience isn’t sick of his face after two hours’ running time.

The ‘Man Who Sold the World’ is played by Ed Harris, who’s got enough gravity to pull off an existential monologue and appear unnerving yet simultaneously comforting and dad-ish. Written, directed and produced by the Coen Brothers.

Sample Dialogue:

David: I thought you died, alone.
TMWSTW: Oh no, not me. I never lost control.

Next: Joe The Lion


The Song: Joe the Lion

Joe the Lion appeared on the 1977 album Heroes. It’s said to be based on the story of a performance artist called Chris Burden, who was famous at the time for getting himself nailed to cars and shot and ghastly things like that.

But hey! This is Hollywood! Enough of all that factual tish tosh. We just need the bare bones so we can bastardise the story out of all recognition.

The Movie:

The film is narrated by the crackly voice-over of an old woman. Joe “The Lion†Caffarelli is an Italian-American living in grimy 1980s New York. He’s so-called on account of the lion tattoo on his back.

Joe is a bare-knuckle fighter who makes it big in the seedy New York underworld. He is a chauvinistic alcoholic wife-beater who is a favourite among the crowds.

His wife, Angela, begins to get a trifle miffed at all the punching that’s happening to her face. She’s also a bit of a fruit loop.

One night, after being the object of his pre-fight warm-up, Angela climbs into the ring and shoots him dead.

The audience then discovers that the narrator is the elderly Angela who is living in an institute for the criminally insane, telling the story to a nurse, who dismisses her story as the ramblings of a demented old crumbly.

The Cast:

Clive Owen beefs up and tackles the lead role. He’s only just convincing as an Italian-American, but his job is made a little easier by the fact that most of his dialogue is done in a shouty voice, so any accent slip-ups are smoothed over with spittle.

Kate Bosworth is horribly miscast as Angela. She has none of the depth required for such a complex character, and, at the end, some unconvincing ageing make-up undoes any credibility the film’s gained in its 90-minute duration.

She is remarkably good at falling over, though (which she does a lot). Look out for cameos from Joe Pesci and someone from Friends. Probably doesn’t matter who.

Sample Dialogue:

The crowd chants, “Joe the Lion, made of iron,†as Angela steps into the ring and shoots his face off.

Next: China Girl


The Song: China Girl

A song which was actually co-written with Iggy Pop in 1977, China Girl didn’t appear in a Bowie album until 1983’s Let’s Dance. It’s a pretty bold one actually: it explores a relationship between the narrator – Bowie, presumably – and his “little China Girlâ€.

As the song progresses Bowie gets more and more overbearing and possessive, and all passionate about swastikas and Nazis and the like.

Cripes. That’s a bit heavy for Hollywood.

So instead of that, why not distort the story into something unrecognisably trite and turn the eponymous China Girl into a girl made of china?! Yeah? Yeah.

The Movie:

A DisneyPixar production, the whole film is CGI, and 3-D, for extra punch.

Coco is a china doll who wants to be a human girl.

It's a plot that simultaneously thieves ideas from books, films and songs. It’s a winning formula. The studios know it. The audience knows it too, yet they’re having too much fun wearing the 3-D specs to feel cheated.

Adored by her owner, Adele, a young girl living in occupied war-time France, Coco’s dreams of real life mimic Adele’s desire for a ‘normal’ childhood outside of a war zone, which in turn mimics the country’s longing for freedom from occupation. It’s all very deep, like.

When the war ends, Coco goes missing and Adele’s family find an orphan girl, whom they adopt, and name Cosette (or Coco… see?). Adele and Cosette form an incredible friendship.

It’s a war-time movie, but war is tamed-down, with bombs and planes heard and not seen – no bloodied limbs or horrific head injuries, nothing like that. It’s only a PG, after all.

The Cast:

Coco is voiced by an unknown actress, who will also voice Cosette in the final scenes.

She’ll inevitably go on to voice a couple more films, because she’s not really cute enough to get a role in a proper film.

Adele will be voiced by Dakota Fanning, and the audience will recognise her voice, but not be able to pinpoint exactly where they’ve heard it before, and it’ll bug them and bug them until the big revelatory moment at the end credits, where they’ll experience a devastating anticlimax.

Sample Dialogue:

Cosette: Am I real?
Adele: Yes! I hear your heart beating, loud as thunder!


Next: Space Oddity


The Song: Space Oddity

One of Bowie’s best-loved tracks, Space Oddity tells the story of poor old Major Tom who finds himself “sitting in a tin can†(not a real tin can) “far above the worldâ€. Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing he can do. Understandably, he gets a little bit down in the dumps.

The single was quite significant, released in 1969, the year of the lunar landing, which ensured its success in Britain. We feel it’s about time Major Tom was given the Hollywood treatment.

The Movie:

Of course, the title Space Oddity is a pun on the title of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey released the preceding year. So what better way to honour the Major’s memory than with a spoof?!

The film opens with Kubrick’s iconic ape-and-bone scene, though with a ‘hilarious’ twist: the seat is cut out of the monkey suits so that every time they turn around, the audience see bums. Brilliant, right? You ain’t heard nothing yet.

We follow Major Tom, a lazy, idiot stoner, who’s been sent into space for some ludicrous reason in an exhibition of appalling judgement by Ground Control.

Once there, he encounters some really stupid and unfunny Star Wars/Trek/Apollo 13 skits which make you want to burrow into your own skin in a last ditch attempt to find an exit route from the cinema.

The finale features a huge floating baby. It talks. And swears. Try not to swear back.

The Cast:

Rob Schneider is Major Tom. Lee Evans is an operator at Ground Control and the baby is voiced by Chris Rock. Prepare to have a really, really bad time.

Sample Dialogue:

GC: This is ground control to Major Tom. The papers want to know whose shirts you wear. I told them that you wear your own damned shirts.

Audience: Huh?

Next: Five Years


The Song: Five Years

What a gloomy song. Released in ’72, Five Years pinpoints the moment humanity receives the news that the world will end in five years’ time.

Understandably, Bowie is a bit depressed about the whole thing. Hollywood won’t be angling for a feel-good movie with this one. It’s going to be bleak.

The Movie:

The film opens on a market in central London. A shaky, hand-held camera pans around a chaotic scene, where hundreds of people appear grief-stricken and panicked.

It unfolds that they’ve just heard the news that they have five years to live. The reason for this is never explained.

The lone camera follows the unnamed protagonist during his last years on Earth. There’s a lot of crying involved. You’ll need counselling after watching this one.

The Cast:

Bowie stars. Lars Von Trier directs, sticking rigidly to the Dogme doctrine.

So, far from being irrevocably determined as suggested by the tagline of doom, the plot seems nice and rudderless. Oh yeah, and the film is in real time. That’s right. It’s five years long. Lars, you maverick.

Sample Dialogue:

Bowie: My brain hurts a lot.

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