The 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth is based on a 1963 novel of the same name, but it seems like it was written specifically for and about its alien-like star David Bowie. When Bowie agreed to make the movie, he was in the middle of a whirlwind of pop success. After several years of trying to break onto the scene, his career had shot off like a rocket. The dizzying rise was getting to him, though, he was already contemplating retirement because he was on the brink of losing himself in the excess of success. The entire time he filmed The Man Who Fell to Earth, he was coked-up, insecure, and feeling just as estranged from the rest of the world, and himself, as his alien character Thomas Jerome Newton.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is an exploration of addiction, the dizzying downsides of striving and success, the limits of pleasure and money, and the haunting wound of unquenchable loneliness. It’s right in line with the brilliance and themes of David’s music and stage presence. He ascended to pop fame, a sly-yet-sincere elf of a man, touchingly obscure in his glittering maze of personas. Bowie in the 70s was all sex and loneliness, his glamorously cold and androgynous beauty a daring symbol of the unknowableness we all feel inside. Bowie’s performance in TMWFTE felt authentic because he was literally living the part more than playing it.
“I just learned the lines for that day and did them the way I was feeling,” Bowie said of his experience making the film. “It wasn’t that far off. I actually was feeling as alienated as that character was. It was a pretty natural performance. … a good exhibition of somebody literally falling apart in front of you. I was totally insecure with about 10 grams a day in me. I was stoned out of my mind from beginning to end.”
He was also a fairly new father, caught in a showbiz marriage, and spun up in a constant whirlwind of sex and drugs. The trappings of his life were part dream and part madness and he was close to losing his mind. It was around the time that he filmed The Man Who Fell to Earth that David really started to lose his grip on reality thanks to his dependence on cocaine and alcohol. He’d spend long stretches of time in isolation at his L. A. house, bedeviled with paranormal paranoia. He thought his pool was possessed, and drew giant symbols on the walls of his house, imagining that his incantations could transport him to another realm. He thought witches and wizards were after his bodily fluids. He lived in morbid fear of Jimmy Page, and said some troubling things about Hitler and fascism that he was later mortified by. “I’d stay up for weeks,” Bowie’s said of this time. “Even people like Keith Richards were floored by it. And there were pieces of me all over the floor. I paid with the worst manic depression of my life. My psyche went through the roof, it just fractured into pieces. I was hallucinating 24 hours a day.”
“I just wish Dave would get himself sorted fucking out. He’s totally confused, that lad… I just wish he could be in this room, right now, sat here, so I could kick some sense into him.“
– Mick Ronson, 1975
Instead of spiraling further into madness and, likely, death, Bowie was saved by his personal assistant Coco Schwab, who was close to him for the rest of his life. She helped Bowie by not being a “yes man,” to his every whim. She let him know he was losing his mind and his life, and without her honest perspective, he probably wouldn’t have survived. “She became the most important person in my life in the mid Seventies,” Bowie said of Schwab. “My whole lifestyle at that time made me quite bonkers, and I had a complete breakdown. Coco was the one person who told me what a fool I was becoming and she made me snap out of it.”
Thankfully, Bowie was able to find his way out of addiction to build a life for himself and his son Duncan Jones, who he gained full custody of after his 1980 divorce from wife Angie Bowie, a model and gay activist who credits herself with much of Bowie’s early act. She’s been estranged from both of them ever since, and oddly enough, was appearing on Celebrity Big Brother when David passed away this January. After his death, she’s freely commented on their life together, and seems unfazed by not talking to her now 44-year-old son in over 28 years. “It was just I was never going to take him away from his father because they were tight as can be. It was just one of those things,” she said of the estrangement.
Bowie felt bad about the early neglect his son experienced during his first few years on Earth while both parents were distracted by spacey rock-n-roll dreams, and dedicated the rest of his life to making it up to him. “I didn’t give him enough time until about 1975,” Bowie reportedly said in 1993. “Then I took over at that point as father and parent. His mother was in and out of his life. And it was a pretty rotten childhood, I think. Probably one of the major regrets of my life is that I didn’t spend enough time with him when he was really young. But hopefully I have been making up for that.”
David Bowie spent most of his life coming back to David Jones, but he never gave up on the part of his identity that’s forever intwined with the ageless, nostalgia-ridden alien addict in The Man Who Fell to Earth. He spent many of his last months working on a play called Lazarus that’s meant to be a sequel to the film. Along with “Lazarus” from his final album ?, the play’s soundtrack includes the highlights of Bowie’s most iconic space-themed music like “Life on Mars” and “The Man Who Sold the World.”
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