REMEMBERING DAVID BOWIE AND ALAN RICKMAN
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
It might seem weirdly sacrilegious, in honoring the eclectic and alternative genius of David Bowie to focus on a track from Let’s Dance, his hugely successful 1983 release. Stranger still, for a film critic to do so, even though the album contained the song “Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” which was the title track from the 1982 film. Bowie appeared onscreen, brandishing his signature iconic status and appeal—take, if you will, pictures from “Labyrinth,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Basquiat, and “The Prestige”—as a goblin king, Pontius Pilate, Andy Warhol and Nikola Tesla, and in every single instance, you can’t imagine anyone else in those roles.
But his greatest cinematic gift to audiences really was his music. Let’s Dance, both the single and the album, extended his reach, far beyond the swelling fringe that lovingly embraced the alien and the emerging Thin White Duke. His voice was the thing, an expressive instrument of beauty that cut through the stage costumes and colorful glam posturing. His voice was, in fact, what made the music matter, when you couldn’t focus on the arsenal of visual tricks he employed on tour.
His voice breathed life into his lyrics—the melancholy love story that was “Without You,” which starts off, “Just when I’m ready to throw in my hand / just when the best things in life are gone / I look into your eyes.” I felt that way when I heard the news about his passing. Just a day before, I had taken a moment to listen to the current single from his new release Blackstar, and I marveled at its video, replete with images of Bowie dancing, blindfolded, so alive and still reaching for more experiences. Now, I see a connection to Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth” in its two protagonists—Michael Caine’s retired composer and Harvey Keitel’s aging yet still driven filmmaker. Bowie continued to stoke the fires of passion and youthful vitality, so much so that we never would have known that he was sick.
“There’s no smoke without fire,” he sang, a little further into “Without You.” Bowie was both smoke and fire, the signal and the cause for alarm, and as trite as it seems, he is the fire that will never burn out. It has nothing to do with the bump his passing will bestow upon Blackstar on the charts or the sales of his previous collections. Those of us who remember the acting performances listed above or the songs will carry a piece of David Bowie with us. A generation of young indie film fans who happen upon “Basquiat,” for instance, will confront his version of Andy Warhol and that portrayal will define their conception of both artists.
“And when I’m ready to call it a day,” on the idea of onscreen villainy, I would say there is no better face and voice (again with the voice) than Alan Rickman. Darth Vader may be at the top of list for most moviegoers when it comes to the ultimate bad boys, but that is because of an amalgamation of elements—the voice of James Earl Jones, the Vader mask and the towering black-robed form.
Hans Gruber had none of that to fall back on when he took over “Die Hard,” sharing the spotlight with the quip-ready John McClane (Bruce Willis). McClane’s snarky good guy lives on, but has never faced off against a better match than Rickman’s Gruber, who had all of the mad genius of a European elitist—slick and urbane. He was America’s worst nightmare, at the time, because he reminded us of our own inferiority complex. We were scrappy hard workers and he exuded haughty casual disdain. His voice had authority and menace, but he could switch it off and pretend to sound like one of us.
I loved Rickman even more though, two years later, in “Truly Madly Deeply” when he returned as the ghost of Juliet Stevenson’s deceased partner to help her through her grief. Anthony Minghella’s film is such a small and intimate affair; it feels like we’re haunting this isolated couple moreso than Rickman. It is sweet and funny and sad because we see that Stevenson’s character could very easily be living Bowie’s lyrics from “Without You.”
She’s ready to call it a day all right, especially when her love seemingly comes back to her. Just when I won’t take another chance / I hold your hand. She’s willing to live and love his ghost, and why not? Rickman, as much as he embodied the perfect criminal mastermind in “Die Hard,” softens and shapes himself into someone she (and we) could fall for “Truly Madly Deeply.”
Kids everywhere were saying goodbye to Professor Severus Snape, but we would all be better served thanking and remembering these two. There’s no smoke without fire, and thanks to the legacy they leave behind, we will never truly be without either of them.