By Sean Doyle
Casting a pop star in a movie has always been a gamble, but from his flamboyant stage personas to his album covers that imitated the glamour of old Hollywood, it was inevitable that David Bowie would end up on the big screen. It was also probably inevitable that his first starring role would be that of an alien.
Bowie first came to Nicolas Roeg’s attention through Alan Yentob’s harrowing 1974 documentary Cracked Actor. The singer looks skeletal, distant, and nearly out of his mind on cocaine, as he rides across America in a limousine, babbling and listening to Aretha Franklin, utterly alone. Roeg was riveted, and the documentary’s influence on The Man Who Fell to Earth is evident, blurring the line between character and reality.
Despite his personal troubles, Bowie approached the role professionally, and soon became deeply invested in the film. Based on a 1963 sci-fi novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth is the story of Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien from a distant desert planet who is trying to bring some of Earth’s water supply back to his dying world, eventually becoming waylaid by petty conflicts, human greed, and his own weaknesses. This was a story made for David Bowie, a character he could have dreamt up himself.
Bowie, who was at the height of his musical career artistically, assumed he’d be in charge of the soundtrack, though it was never stated in his contract. He set to work on it immediately after shooting wrapped and it’s said six songs were recorded, mostly instrumental pieces. None of them are used in the film. There are conflicting reports as to why. John Phillips—the man who Roeg ultimately hired to pull the soundtrack together—claimed the songs were “hauntingly beautiful,” but too spacey for a film set in the southwest. He said Roeg wanted “twang.”
Phillips, former leader of The Mamas & the Papas, presented Roeg with a collage of pop songs, classical music and original compositions. This soundtrack was heard in the film but never officially released for legal and contractual reasons. Even compiling an accurate list of the pieces used in the film or their origins is frustratingly difficult. Phillips’s own contributions seem to be the bits of fluttering bluegrass and soaring country rock scattered across the film, which give some of the twang Roeg apparently desired. It’s not hugely distinctive music but it feels earthy, and essentially American, like the New Mexico landscape where the film was primarily shot.
The soundtrack truly becomes striking and unique when the musical selections veer away from the viewer’s expectations. Japanese composer Stomu Yamashta’s prog-tinged brand of world music is put to use inventively throughout the film, casting a sense of alien mystery, or underlining inventive sequences, like the scene of sexual combat between Rip Torn’s Dr. Bryce and one of his young students. For the scenes in which Newton’s thoughts drift back to his alien home, Phillips and Roeg enlisted Desmond Briscoe, co-founder of BBC’s pioneering Radiophonic Workshop, to craft simple electronic atmospheres that were then combined with whale songs, to eerie effect.
The pop songs that appear throughout the film are often diegetic, playing from record players or radios or television screens. There’s no guiding aesthetic at play; you hear everything from Louis Armstrong to Steely Dan. The music clashes and coalesces with its accompanying imagery in equal measure.
As hodgepodge as these choices seem, they make sense. While Newton is stoic and distant, Roeg’s film is constantly in motion, fading and cutting from image to image and sound to sound, packed with discordant details. The soundtrack is like Newton’s bank of televisions, a moving, multifaceted portrait of the human race, the disoriented perspective of an alien with no context to understand our world.
How might David Bowie’s score have stacked up to Phillips’s work? The only clues we have come from his next album, 1977’s Low. The song you’re hearing now is the album’s closer, “Subterraneans.” The second side of Low is made up of a series of brooding, cinematic instrumentals. Bowie sent a copy of the record to Roeg with a note saying “This is what I wanted to do for the film.” Still, the only song known to have any direct connection to the aborted soundtrack is this one. “Subterraneans” is an achingly sad dirge of synthesizer and saxophone, creeping bass and meaningless chant. It was said at the time to be about the fractured population of Berlin, a song for those—like Newton—who could never go home again.
Bowie later said that he had only sought out film roles where he wasn’t being asked to play himself with a different name. But he also claimed that by the time he was done filming The Man Who Fell to Earth he felt like Thomas Jerome Newton was now playing him. Maybe that was what was so wrong with his score: Bowie was no longer seeing the story from the outside, from Roeg’s perspective behind the camera—he was seeing it from the inside. The music he was composing could play only in the mental landscapes of a lost and lonely alien.