10 David Bowie Songs That Made Films Better

Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, and David Lynch are all fans


Editor’s Note: The following feature was originally published the day after David Bowie died. We’ve preserved the text to honor his memory.

Writing an introduction to a list of the best David Bowie songs in film is a very different task than it would have been yesterday. At the moment, it feels that every glimpse we have of this remarkable creature, every image and every note, has become more precious than it was before. To write a list and not include everything feels inadequate. To write a list at all feels small. But making art, experience art, sharing art — that’s important. It’s important on days most ordinary, and certainly on days like the one we’re living right now. Art reaches us alone and together. It’s solitary and shared. It changes us individually, just as it links us as one.

The coupling of one artist’s work with another’s — and in the case of film, the work of many others — brings new things out of both. “Moonage Daydream” is different now, because of both Guardians of the Galaxy and We Live in Public. “Space Oddity” changes and is changed by Mad Men and Mr. Deeds, and Bowie himself credited 2001: A Space Odyssey as being one source of the song’s inspiration. None of those pairings, some blissful and some bizarre, is included in this list, which just goes to show how long such a list could be—and that’s excluding things he didn’t himself sing, from “Lust for Life” (and thus Trainspotting) to “Walk on the Wild Side” (and Hedwig and the Angry Inch).

David Bowie made other artists better. He made art better. He made us feel, like the kids in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, infinite. I think he blew our minds.

–Allison Shoemaker
Staff Writer

10. “Fashion” in Clueless (1995)

With all due respect to “Kids in America”, Amy Heckerling’s wicked update on Emma should have just started with Bowie. Clueless looks at teenage life through a lens of fantastical privilege, and it starts with Cher (Alicia Silverstone) browsing her wardrobe on a touch-screen. Now it looks dated, but at the time, it was absurdly unreal. What made it work? “Fashion”. Imagine something too fabulous to exist, and Bowie’s the only possible soundtrack. “Fashion” sounded like the coolest of the cool songs in a really cool movie when I was 11. It would never have occurred to me that it pre-dated the film, that the song was the same age as Cher. Absurder still: it was by the same guy who sang that “Changes” song my mom was always playing, and both of them were also Jareth the Goblin King. My tiny mind was blown.

–Allison Shoemaker

09. “Starman” in The Martian (2015)

It’s still fresh, so be advised on the spoilery nature of this entry: The Martian was a light-hearted, at times farcical, approach to one of the scariest cinematic propositions of recent memory: “Hey, like, what if some botanist was accidentally left alone on the desolate landscapes of Mars and forced to survive with his only his wits and his words?” Feel that chill? To offset that tension, Ridley Scott’s trick was splendidly selected pop music playing over Matt Damon’s space marooning, and The Martian was downright adorable at times for its uses of ABBA, Donna Summer, and, of course, Bowie. “Starman” plays over a montage where American and Chinese governments agree to work together to save Damon, and the song has never felt so upbeat or apt.

–Blake Goble

08. “Heroes” in The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

Don’t reduce this to the stuff of manic pixie dream girls. Stephen Chbowsky’s 1999 coming-of-age novel might seem almost preciously angsty when peered at through the lenses of adulthood. But open up that tiny door that hides all the younger versions of you, and it doesn’t seem so angsty after all. It does, however, remain precious. To be honest, I’m not sure much needs to be said about this scene, which is what makes it so wonderful. You don’t need to know who these kids are, where they’re from, where they’re going. You can see from the way the song hits them that they’ve felt broken, but at least in this moment, all their scars and wounds and imperfections are transcendently beautiful. You were young, and you heard a song once. You turned it up. You felt the wind in your hair and you became giant. You were infinite, just for one day.

–Allison Shoemaker

07. “I’m Deranged” in Lost Highway (1997)

Though unfortunately never culminating in a major project, the pairing of two eccentric, surreal artists like David Bowie and David Lynch seemed surprisingly logical. The Starman appeared briefly in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, but the use of Bowie’s “I’m Deranged” in Lynch’s Lost Highway offers a glimpse at the intersection of their aesthetics. The song plays in the opening and closing credits of the film: Bowie’s insistent electronics gain a fresh darkness when played over the frantic, ceaseless footage of the center line of a highway lit only by headlights. Meanwhile, the musician’s ability to infuse operatic beauty into paranoiac, imagistic lyrics (“I’m deranged/ Down, down, down”) gives an extra dose of eerie ethereality to Lynch’s grimy yet mystic world.

–Adam Kivel

06. “Golden Years” in A Knight’s Tale (2001)

A Knight’s Tale is remembered for exactly two things. One, Heath Ledger charmed the chainmail off of people in Brian Helgeland’s medieval adventure comedy. And two, David Bowie’s “Golden Years” became the calling card soundtrack selection for the 2001 film.  At the time of release, Helgeland revealed that part of his writing process was listening to classic rock, and some of his favorites found their way into the Ledger vehicle. Here’s a cute juxtaposition: A fancy formal ball with rigid dancing slowly builds into a rollicking shakedown as “Golden Years” offsets the standard, stuffy period stuff, and Ledger boogies like you wouldn’t believe. We have to admit the song’s usage here is gold.

–Blake Goble

05. “Something in the Air” in Memento (2001)

Bowie’s ‘Hours…’ isn’t exactly his strongest album; in fact, our staff placed it at his worst in their exhaustive dissection of his sprawling discography. Still, the 1999 album spawned one of his more useful singles in recent decades, “Something in the Air”. No, it’s not a Thunderclap Newman cover, but rather a sizzling, silky ballad that caught the ears of both Mary Harron and Christopher Nolan. The two used the track to close out their respective films, 2000’s American Psycho and 2001’s Memento.

Both films were released within a year of each other, but what’s really strange is how the two end with confessional monologues (see: here and here). Yet while Harron beat Nolan to the punch, the song actually works better with Memento. Bowie’s grand gestures of lost love speak less to Christian Bale’s Wall Street anti-hero Patrick Bateman and more to Guy Pearce’s tragic amnesiac Leonard, who’s searching aimlessly for his wife’s killer. But really, it’s splitting hairs.

–Michael Roffman

04. “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” in Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Nobody remembers Paul Schrader’s Cat People. A naked Natassia Kinski and a wild-eyed Malcolm McDowell scratched at eachother — it’s lost art house trash. Sure enough, Quentin Tarantino managed to snatch an original Bowie song from the film, “Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” and re-used it to breathtaking effect in his postmodern war classic, Inglourious Basterds.

Bowie’s leftfield sizzler plays over a preparation montage: Shosana Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) makes plans to exact revenge on Nazis that did her wrong, and Bowie provides a fierce anthem for Dreyfus’ beautiful scheme. Sultry and noir-ish, “Cat People,” found vivid new life in the hands of QT.

–Blake Goble

03. “Magic Dance” in Labyrinth (1986)

Villains can be a hell of a lot more fun than heroes (…just for one day.) That’s nothing new. The thing about Jareth, though, is that even though he’s a child-stealing, cheating, Muppet-kicking, double-tricking goblin king who might actually be an owl, he still seems like a hell of a lot of fun. Case in point: “Dance Magic.”

Nothing can stop “Dance Magic” from being a goddamn party-starter. Even Toby’s having a blast, and he’s a baby whose entire kidnapping hinges on the fact that he won’t stop crying. There are a lot of great stories out there about goblin kings or dark princes who trick human children into this or that, but “Dance Magic” makes those stories seem a thousand times more plausible.

Come to the dark side. We’ve got dancing.

–Allison Shoemaker

02. “Life on Mars” in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

It wouldn’t have been entirely unacceptable had Wes Anderon wanted to subtitle The Life Aquatic with Featuring Music by David Bowie. Anderson was clearly in love with Bowie in 2004, and it’s somewhat unfair to pinpoint an exact perfect use of his music in Anderson’s sea-faring dramedy. The film’s loaded with excellent Bowie beats. Brazilian cast member Seu Jorge translated hits like “Starman” and “Changes” to Portuguese, along with “Rebel Rebel” and “Space Oddity”, and the original “Queen Bitch” closes out the film with triumphant fervor.

But perhaps the grandest, strangest, and most transfixing use comes in the placement of Bowie’s masterful, “Life on Mars”. The surreal, dreamy love song plays as Bill Murray’s Steve Zissou learns he might have a son. Stoned, he needs a sec to process this. As he walks the bow of the ship, “Mars” emerges and blares with enigmatic beauty, encapsulating Zissou’s disbelief. It’s perfectly placed, giving a theme to his disillusionment. Plus, it’s a kick ass song in a weird ass movie: a perfect union of sound and image.

–Blake Goble

01. “Modern Love” in Frances Ha (2012)

“One of the chief reasons to be alive is to stick around for scenes like this.” That’s Oscar Wao. I don’t know him. He’s just some user on YouTube who commented on this video about a month ago, but he’s probably the first commenter I’ve ever really agreed with on any social network. His quick line nails this scene to perfection, capturing the blissful gasp that hallmarks Noah Baumbach’s 2012 magnum opus, Frances Ha.

The entire sequence is an homage to Leos Carax’ Mauvais Sang, but Baumbach makes it such a pivotal scene for his film. Greta Gerwig’s titular heroine runs freely through the streets of New York, gleefully laughing, smiling, and jumping amidst the city’s hustle and bustle. Her unadulterated joy and freedom is smartly juxtaposed against Bowie’s angsty confessions about knowing “when to go out” and recognizing “when to stay in.” It’s fucking gorgeous.

Later on, Baumbach revisits the song to close out the film, making “Modern Love” the implied anthem of Frances Ha. It’s a curious marriage, as Bowie laments about the pitfalls of dating and extracurricular romance, so does Baumbach and Gerwig, who co-wrote the film with the director. Yet both the song and the film meditate on more than simply kiss-and-tell flings. It’s about the freedom and trappings of those encounters, and how life can or can’t exist without them.

If only every soundtrack choice was this integral.

–Michael Roffman