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9 times David Bowie songs transformed movies and television

Seu Jorge, who covered Bowie songs so beautifully that Bowie himself was floored.
Seu Jorge, who covered Bowie songs so beautifully that Bowie himself was floored.
Touchstone Pictures

David Bowie's contributions to the world of film and television are as substantial as those of any recording artist in history. Yes, many will remember him for his memorable roles in several films, but his songs and performances have scored some memorable movie moments as well. Here are nine of our favorites.

"Life on Mars?" as heard in Life on Mars, American Horror Story: Freak Show

Bowie's swooning "Life on Mars?" has provided the score for many memorable cinematic moments, but there are two from television that really capture the song's feeling of unexplored possibility, the sense that anything could happen if you were able to see beyond the veil of reality.

That made the song a perfect fit for the British cop show Life on Mars, which featured a cop from the 2000s traveling back to the 1970s after falling into a coma. The show used a lot of Bowie in its soundtrack, as you might expect, and it frequently returned to its title track, turning it into a kind of totem of its main character's journey through time. In particular, the show's use of the song in its series finale was devastatingly memorable (and will not be spoiled here; go watch it now!). Fittingly, its eventual '80s-set spinoff was titled after another Bowie song — Ashes to Ashes.

But "Life on Mars?" also proved to be a major part of American Horror Story's fourth season, which was set in the 1950s but would occasionally, and usually out of nowhere, become a musical scored with anachronistic tunes. That season's premiere was a mess, but its finest moment involved Jessica Lange, a microphone, and "Life on Mars?". It was so hauntingly beautiful it essentially broke the show, which could never rise to its level.

— Todd VanDerWerff

"Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)," as heard in Cat People, Inglourious Basterds

If ever there were a movie that suggested David Bowie should write its title song, it was director Paul Schraeder's 1982 remake of the '40s horror film Cat People. The sensuous, erotic story of a couple of werecats and the human who loves one of them, Cat People sounds ridiculous but is actually deeply felt and tragic — a space that Bowie occupied very well. The song he wrote for the film is a brooding, ominous anthem, the sound of synthetic thunder on the horizon.

It was also brilliantly reappropriated by Quentin Tarantino in one of the best sequences of his 2009 film Inglourious Basterds. As Shoshanna — a Jewish woman who's plotting revenge against the Nazis for what they did to her family — prepares for the night of her final, fiery vengeance, "Cat People" scores her transformation from woman to weapon of pure, righteous fury. It marks a kind of metamorphosis: soft to hard, then back again.

— Todd VanDerWerff

"Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy," Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas

You know this one. It resurfaces every year around the holidays, Crosby's robust baritone melding perfectly with Bowie's soaring tenor. It's a terrific reminder of Bowie's voracious musical appetite. He'd just as happily record with Crosby as he would with Queen or Nile Rodger from Chic — all different artists, from different genres and generations, but all artists whose styles meshed perfectly with Bowie's chameleon-like ability to change his voice to suit whatever occasion he found himself in.

This duet takes on an added poignancy now that both men are gone. Crosby died five weeks after recording the track, and Merrie Olde Christmas would be his last Christmas special. At the time of its recording, Bowie was the young kid to Crosby's old pro, the up-and-comer (albeit one whose music career already spanned decade) to Crosby's legend. Their collaboration, then, should be recognized for what it was: one legend recognizing another in the making.

— Todd VanDerWerff

"Young Americans," as heard in Dogville

Danish director Lars von Trier has never visited the United States because of his intense fear of flying, but that hasn't stopped him from making films that are set here and that focus on the nation's history and ideals. Dogville, the first installment of a planned trilogy called USA – Land of Opportunities, documents the titular town's reaction to the arrival of Grace Mulligan (Nicole Kidman), who is wanted by a gang of criminals.

Though the town's residents are welcoming at first, they slowly and collectively turn against Grace, and she is abused, assaulted, enslaved, and forbidden from leaving. Like Shirley Jackson's classic short story "The Lottery," the film argues that America's spirit of democratic self-government can be and often is perverted into a form of vicious oppression. And to close it out, von Trier borrows "Young Americans," a similarly jaded tune from a non-American writing about the country.

The song plays behind images of American poverty, many from fellow Dane Jacob Holdt's American Pictures, which is Denmark's all-time best-selling book about the US. Bowie's bouncy, joyous music adds ironic contrast to the brutality of the images, but also serves as a concession of sorts: After all, it's Bowie's attempt at soul, a distinctly American contribution to music. America has let itself and others down, von Trier and Bowie ("Do you remember President Nixon?") say together; but damn if they didn't sound wonderful doing it.

— Dylan Matthews

"Nature Boy," "Diamond Dogs," and "Heroes," as heard in Moulin Rouge

Baz Luhrmann's Bohemian love story is lush, surreal, and hopelessly romantic — so Bowie's music is a perfect fit. While there are several great covers throughout Moulin Rouge, Bowie's voice and influence make an appearance in three separate songs, each of them representative of how he could create worlds within a single, sliding note.

Bowie and Beck collaborated on a trippy version of "Diamond Dogs," transforming it from the rollicking 1974 dance track to a disorienting, alien song for the chaotic floor of the Moulin Rouge.

Then Ewan McGregor's lovesick poet tries to woo Nicole Kidman's doomed actress with "Elephant Love Medley," a collection of love songs that culminates in all the melodies smashing together in joyful triumph at the peak of Bowie's "Heroes."

But the most iconic of Bowie's Moulin Rouge contributions is his own sweeping, mournful version of the Nat King Cole ballad "Nature Boy." Bowie's take opens the film, and to prime the Moulin Rouge audience for the devastation ahead, Bowie croons over Luhrmann's panorama of ruined dreams: "The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return." This refrain comes back over and over again throughout Moulin Rouge, a steady pulse in a story full of eager, dying hearts.

Caroline Framke

"Space Oddity," as heard in Mad Men's seventh season

"Space Oddity" is one of Bowie's most instantly recognizable songs. It's also one of the most representative of the way his work could be both otherworldly and deeply personal. Bowie warbles the story of Major Tom, an astronaut who becomes so attached to his ship — and so mystified by the enormous distance between his "tin can" and the blue Earth below him — that he decides to just float forever. "Space Oddity" is as beautiful as it is sad, and somehow even more satisfying when it ends in such a purposely vague way.

Mad Men embraced this melancholy feeling as Don Draper (Jon Hamm) escaped from his claustrophobic office on Madison Avenue to find himself on the ever-stretching open road in season seven's "Lost Horizon." In that moment, Don feels some kind of freedom. Because it is scored to "Space Oddity," however, Don's inescapable loneliness still seeps through the bright sunlight surrounding his car.

In Bowie's words: He's floating, in a most peculiar way.

Caroline Framke

"All the Young Dudes," as heard in Clueless

Clueless is one of the best teen movies ever made, and one of its best moments is when ambitious teen Cher Horowitz surveys the scrubby high school boys surrounding her and practically chokes on her own disdain. Everything about the scene — quick though it is — is precise, cutting, and hilarious.

And as Cher muses on the lackluster efforts of her male peers ("...and, like, we're expected to swoon? I don't think so"), the soundtrack serves a dish made of her own distress in World Party's cover of David Bowie's "All the Young Dudes." The irony is thick, perfectly pairing Cher's acidic appraisal with Bowie's swelling ode to disaffected youth.

Caroline Framke

"Rock 'n' Roll Suicide," "Queen Bitch," etc., as heard in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

The soundtrack for Wes Anderson's fourth and arguably weakest film relies on acoustic Portuguese covers of Bowie songs played by Brazilian crew member Pelé dos Santos (Seu Jorge), with "Queen Bitch" backing the final credit sequence. It's a potent metaphor for the state in which Zissou (Bill Murray) and the rest of the research vessel Belafonte's crew find themselves: attempting to do over past glories, but without the energy they once had.

For Zissou, this is quite an indictment, but it turns out that quieter, more laid-back Bowie is quite lovely. Bowie himself crowed, "Had Seu Jorge not recorded my songs acoustically in Portuguese I would never have heard this new level of beauty which he has imbued them with."

Dylan Matthews

"Modern Love," as heard in Mauvais Sang, Frances Ha

Like many of Bowie's best songs, "Modern Love," from his '80s pop comeback album Let's Dance, combines tentative, contradictory lyrics with wonderfully buoyant music that seems to wipe away what doubt the words create. That makes it an ideal accompaniment for lonely, unsure characters who are nonetheless determined to experience what joy they can. In Leos Carax's 1986 Mauvais Sang, Alex (Denis Lavant) can barely handle his feelings for Anna (Juliette Binoche), and so he lets it all out on an ecstatic nighttime run through Paris, complete with cartwheels.

Noah Baumbach paid homage to the sequence in his 2012 film Frances Ha. Frances (Greta Gerwig) is a confused 27-year-old dancer whose one truly important relationship (with her best friend Sophie) is in jeopardy. She's enduring a rather different kind of turmoil than Mauvais Sang's Alex, but her remedy is the same: a run through city streets, set to "Modern Love."

— Dylan Matthews