Casting an appropriate actor in the role of Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who arrives on Earth in search of a solution to the terminal drought afflicting his home planet, was absolutely key to the success of The Man Who Fell To Earth. And it took a while...
Director Nicolas Roeg had already considered Michael Crichton, Mick Jagger and Peter O’Toole for the part when Maggie Abbott (the agent who hooked him up with Jagger when he was casting Performance) suggested he consider David Bowie.
Upon witnessing a detached and otherworldly Bowie, rail thin from a diet of milk and cocaine, being driven through the California desert in the back of a limousine for BBC documentary Cracked Actor, Roeg had no doubt that he’d found his extraterrestrial.
His backers at Columbia Pictures, however, were not so sure. With their choice for Newton (box-office golden boy Robert Redford) passed over in favour of an untried limey pop star, they withdrew their support.
Roeg therefore had to approach the recently formed British Lion which, recognising the resonance that Bowie’s name would have on the home market, coughed up a budget, albeit a modest one. Consequently, tight scheduling and cut corners set the mood for a flawed movie that could so easily have been great.
Bowie is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the very best thing about the film: his magnetic charisma and essential ‘otherness’ ultimately carrying an overlong movie – especially in this 20-minutes-extended director’s cut.
Rendered eternally ugly by the fact that it was filmed in 1975 when everything on God’s earth (bar Bowie) was at its most unsightly, The Man Who Fell To Earth also features one of the most appalling musical soundtracks ever produced.
That’s a particular shame, considering it nearly had one of the best and the chance to compose music for the film was a large part of its appeal for Bowie.
Six pieces were earmarked, but as the recording process dragged on there simply wasn’t the time (or, as it turned out, the budget) to bring them to completion. So John Phillips got the gig, and instead of exemplifying the future (as Bowie’s material – including ‘Subterraneans’ – eventually did when recorded for 1977’s Low), Phillips’s incidental music only jars.
A partial success, then. Bowie himself is absent from the dull but adequate array of extras, but this remains a supremely interesting artefact.
Roeg’s film is a science-fiction potboiler elevated to classic status by its iconic star.