When David Bowie Fell to Earth

Newton’s mission clearly suggests a Romantic “return to origins,” specifically the pastoral origins of a lost homeland, so as to redirect his profits toward reviving a dying community that will presumably be founded on use rather than exchange values for his alien race and earthly allies. This restorative vision also would allow the fulfillment of a Romantic selfhood, a full realization of an inner life and agency that would no longer be divided by economic subjectivization.

William Levine, David Bowie and Romanticism, p. 88

David Bowie’s acting career extends to 37 appearances in film and television alone, not counting theater roles. That number covers numerous supporting parts, of course, but a number of leading ones as well. His two most important leading film roles were in Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth as Thomas Jerome Newton and Jim Henson’s 1986 Labyrinth as Jareth, the Goblin King. I’m happy to say that David Bowie and Romanticism has chapters dedicated to both films; I would have felt that the book was incomplete without covering at least both of them.

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One idea that surfaced in both chapters is how strongly Bowie’s public persona intruded on the films through these roles. There’s something a bit obvious about casting Bowie as an alien because his first musical persona was Ziggy Stardust. It complicates our reading of the film, inviting us to read the film as commentary on Bowie’s career as much as an artistic statement in its own right. The film’s title also invites a comparison with Bowie’s 1970 song, “The Man Who Sold the World.” The man who sold the world is a reference to Lucifer’s third temptation of Christ, who offered Christ all the kingdoms of the world if he would bow down and worship him. Similarly, the man who fell to Earth, representing a fall from the sky, invokes Lucifer as well as an alien, both fallen beings in both a material and a moral sense. Lucifer was cast out of heaven; Thomas Jerome Newton came to Earth to rescue his arid homeworld from drought but then never left; and then David Bowie, during the making of this film, was nearing the end of his first stay in America. Verging on cocaine psychosis, if not falling in and out of it, at one point his weight dropped to only 90 lbs. because he was living on a diet of milk and peppers and hardly sleeping. Bowie fell to America the way Lucifer and Newton fell to Earth. Before the end of 1976 he left America for Europe to escape the ready availability of drugs and to save his own life.

William Levine’s “Capitalist Co-optation, Romantic Resistance, and Bowie’s Allegorical Performance in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth,” chapter 5 of David Bowie and Romanticism, is a sophisticated close reading of the film and its intersections with Bowie’s public persona and Romantic themes and images. Levine writes about “capitalist co-optation” in the film because Thomas Jerome Newton’s goal to save his homeworld requires him to secure a number of patents that make him a very wealthy man, give him access to Earth’s industrial capabilities, and make him a threat to established corporations that ultimately cause his downfall.

In Levine’s words, “Newton commands the regime of modernity even more decisively than its major corporations.” But by the end of the film, in Bowie’s words, “Newton has ‘actually found some sort of real emotional drive; he knows what it is to relate to people.'” He has transcended his capitalist, opportunistic, and exploitative goals to form relationships with people on Earth, however doomed they were to fail.

You can read all of Levine’s chapter in the book, of course, which you can purchase through the Bookstore or request for your local, college, or university library.

William Levine regularly teaches courses in the literature of jazz and the blues, philosophy and literature, and the history of literary criticism at Middle Tennessee State University. He has published articles on almost every major English poet and literary critic from Pope to Anna Barbauld and Coleridge, and his current work on the literature of jazz and the blues is informed by many years spent as a jazz journalist producing radio interviews and writing for urban arts weeklies.

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