Nicolas Roeg and more tell the full story of Bowie's greatest on-screen role
It is January 26, 1975 and, at his London home, film director Nicolas Roeg is transfixed. On his TV screen, a pale, hollow-cheeked English rock star is staring out from behind paranoid, sunken eyes. As part of their Omnibus strand, the BBC are showing a fly-on-the-wall documentary made by young film-maker Alan Yentob. Tracking its subject across America, Cracked Actor offers an insight into the strange life of Britain’s leading music icon, David Bowie. Immediately, Roeg knows: he’s found his man.
Since arriving in the US in April ’74, Bowie had been shedding skins at a furious rate. Having killed off Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon the previous summer, he’d begun his journey from the Orwellian nightmare-scape of Diamond Dogs to the zoot-suited white soul of Young Americans. When Yentob’s crew arrived in Philadelphia to film studio sessions that August, they found a man in transition. Ditching the elaborate stage rig of his Diamond Dogs Revue, Bowie worked up a new look and set-list tailored to his current obsession with the music of Black America, renaming it The Philly Dogs Tour.
Painfully thin and lost in a blizzard of coke, Bowie was filmed in the back of a limo either flinching in drugged panic from police sirens or sipping from cartons of milk. Yentob captured a lad going slowly insane. But this was no average rock casualty – articulate and sensitive, he was cracking under the strain of the fame he’d once craved.
At one point, an insect fell in his cup. “There’s a fly floating around in my milk and it’s a foreign body,” he slurred, distractedly. “That’s kind of how I felt: a foreign body. And I couldn’t help but soak it up.” Bowie confessed to Yentob much later that he watched the film “again and again”. When the BBC man pressed him as to why, he replied: “Because it told the truth.”
Back home, Roeg was convinced he’d found the alien lead for his new sci-fi epic, The Man Who Fell To Earth. “I didn’t want an ‘actor’,” he later explained, “but someone who had the possibility of being unique.”