Why movies and TV could never resist a David Bowie song on the soundtrack

On a cross-country flight yesterday evening, I watched “Sleeping with Other People,” a really sharp romantic comedy starring Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis. In one scene, Brie, high on Molly while attending a birthday party, leads a group of kids in a dance to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” Across the aisle at the time, another of the passengers was watching “The Martian,” and had just gotten up to the montage scored to Bowie’s “Starman.” I took note of the coincidence, but only long enough to note that Bowie’s music had appeared on a whole lot of movie and TV soundtracks over the decades, as you might expect from an artist with a career as long, brilliant, and varied as Bowie’s.

A few hours later, I was on the ground, and the news was out that Bowie was dead of cancer at 69. Unable to sleep, I began combing his IMDb page, which listed over 450 movies and shows that featured his music. Now, some of these were talk or variety shows where Bowie himself performed, but there were still hundreds upon hundreds of productions whose creative teams felt a Bowie song was the right one to make a moment feel grander, or stranger, or more painful. Because Bowie’s sound changed even more often than his look, there was no shortage of kinds of Bowie songs to be incorporated. And his biggest hits proved to be remarkably elastic in this area. “Changes” on a soundtrack should be a horrible cliché at this point, but it never is, often making moments (say, this cross-dressing scene from Ryan Murphy’s WB drama “Popular”) more effective than they have any right being. “Mad Men” was the last of a few dozen movies and TV shows to deploy “Space Oddity,” and the song felt as new and haunting as it did in Don Draper’s time. If you couldn’t find the right Bowie song to underscore the themes of your story and make a moment more powerful, you weren’t trying.

Bowie had several TV shows named after his songs, including “Golden Years” (a short-lived Stephen King series about an old man aging backwards) and “Life on Mars” (both the UK original and its spotty American remake played the title tune when its hero woke up in the ’70s; the UK version played it again at length in its mind-blowing finale, then of course played “Changes”). And while most of his memorable acting roles were in the movies (as Nikola Tesla, he enters “The Prestige” by walking through lightning, because of course he does), he didn’t lack for iconic TV appearances, whether this iconic Christmas special duet with Bing Crosby:

Or his hilarious, devastating cameo as himself on “Extras” with Ricky Gervais:

We’re going to have a lot more on Bowie today (go read Drew’s beautiful tribute here). He was The Man Who Fell to Earth. Nobody expected he would ever depart it.