How Nicolas Roeg (RIP) Used David Bowie, Mick Jagger & Art Garfunkel in His Mind-Bending Films

Crit­ics have applaud­ed Bradley Coop­er for the bold move of cast­ing Lady Gaga in his new remake of A Star Is Born, and as its tit­u­lar star at that. As much cin­e­mat­ic dar­ing as it takes to cast a high-pro­file musi­cian in their first star­ring role in the movies, the act has its prece­dents, thanks not least to film­mak­er Nico­las Roeg, who died last week. Hav­ing start­ed out at the bot­tom of the British film indus­try, serv­ing tea at Lon­don’s Maryle­bone Stu­dios the year after World War II end­ed, he became a cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er (not least on David Lean’s Lawrence of Ara­bia) and then a direc­tor in his own-right. That chap­ter of Roeg’s career began with 1970’s Per­for­mance, which he co-direct­ed with Don­ald Cam­mell and in which he cast no less a rock star than Mick Jag­ger in his act­ing debut.

You can see Jag­ger in action in Per­for­mance’s trail­er, which describes the pic­ture as “a film about mad­ness… mad­ness and san­i­ty. A film about fan­ta­sy. This is a film about fan­ta­sy and real­i­ty… and sen­su­al­i­ty. A film about death… and life. This is a film about vice… and ver­sa.”

Those words reflect some­thing real about not just Per­for­mance itself — which crash­es the end of the swing­ing 1960s into grim gang­ster­ism in a man­ner that draws equal­ly from Borges and Bergman — but Roeg’s entire body of work, and also the strug­gle that mar­keters went through to sell it to the pub­lic. But you don’t so much buy a tick­et to see a Nico­las Roeg film as you buy a tick­et to expe­ri­ence it, not least because of the par­tic­u­lar per­for­ma­tive qual­i­ties brought to the table by the music stars Roeg put onscreen.

In 1976 Roeg cast David Bowie as a space alien named Thomas Jerome New­ton in the “shock­ing, mind-stretch­ing expe­ri­ence in sight, in space, in sex” of The Man Who Fell to Earth, arguably the role he was born to play. “I thought of David Bowie when I first was try­ing to fig­ure out who would be Mr. New­ton, some­one who was inside soci­ety and yet awk­ward in it,” Roeg says in the doc­u­men­tary clip above. “David got more than into the char­ac­ter of Mr. New­ton. I think he put much more of him­self than we’d been able to get into the script. It was linked very much to his ideas in his music, and towards the end, I real­ized a big change had hap­pened in his life.” How much Bowie took from the role remains a mat­ter for fans to dis­cuss, though he him­self admits to tak­ing one thing in par­tic­u­lar: the wardrobe. “I lit­er­al­ly walked off with the clothes,” he says, “and I used the same clothes on the Sta­tion to Sta­tion tour.”

Even if step­ping between the con­cert stage and the cin­e­ma screen looks nat­ur­al in ret­ro­spect for the likes of Jag­ger and Bowie, can it work for a low­er-key but nev­er­the­less world-famous per­former? Roeg’s 1980 film Bad Tim­ing cast, in the star­ring role of an Amer­i­can psy­chi­a­trist in Cold War Vien­na who grows obsessed with a young Amer­i­can woman, Art Gar­funkel of Simon and Gar­funkel. (Play­ing the woman, inci­den­tal­ly, is There­sa Rus­sell, who would lat­er show up in Roeg’s Insignif­i­cance in the role of Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe.) The clip above shows a bit of how Roeg uses the per­sona of Gar­funkel, sure­ly one of the least Dionysian among all 1960s musi­cal icons, to infuse the char­ac­ter with a cere­bral chill. In Roeg’s New York Times obit­u­ary, Gar­funkel remem­bers — fond­ly — that the direc­tor “brought me to the edge of mad­ness.” Roeg, for his part, had already paid his musi­cian stars their com­pli­ments in that paper decades ear­li­er: “The fact is that Jag­ger, Bowie and Gar­funkel are all extreme­ly bright, intel­li­gent and well edu­cat­ed. A long way from the pub­lic stereo­type.” But will any direc­tor use per­form­ers like them in quite the same way again?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe Explains Rel­a­tiv­i­ty to Albert Ein­stein (in a Nico­las Roeg Movie)

Watch David Bowie Star in His First Film Role, a Short Hor­ror Flick Called The Image (1967)

When David Bowie Became Niko­la Tes­la: Watch His Elec­tric Per­for­mance in The Pres­tige (2006)

Mick Jag­ger Acts in The Nightin­gale, a Tele­vised Play from 1983

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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