For her extensively researched new book “Earthbound: David Bowie and the Man Who Fell to Earth,” South Pasadena author and former Pasadena Weekly writer Susan Compo dug into the project that helped shape Bowie’s reputation as a rock star whose creativity couldn’t be limited to one medium: Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 cult film “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” in which Bowie starred as an uncertain extraterrestrial from a drought-stricken planet. Writing about Bowie himself “seemed quite overwhelming,” she admits, but librarians and newspaper archives helped her unearth new information and people who’d worked firsthand on the film.
“They brought it to life for me,” she says, “in a way that I hadn’t expected.”
Based on Walter Tevis’ 1963 science-fiction novel, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” attracted press interest thanks to Bowie’s involvement, and controversy over forced cuts that made the lengthy film all but incomprehensible. Despite being a critical failure at the time it has since enjoyed critical reappraisal. Compo, who backdropped a couple of her fiction books with Bowie’s music, says “you cannot underplay” his enduring fascination with Tevis’ story, which informed his 2015 Off-Broadway musical “Lazarus”: “He had a lot of things he could have chosen, and that’s the [story] he returned to.” The title song, one of four from the play that he recorded, hauntingly emerged on his final album, 2016’s “Blackstar.”
But the focus of “Earthbound” isn’t music or even Bowie himself but the film, which Compo cheerily estimates she has viewed 22 times. What continually draws her to it is not only Bowie — “the perfect person for the part” — but also the dreaminess of Tony Richmond’s cinematography and the setting. “It’s probably the beauty of it, and its message. It’s quite ethereal,” she says. “Make no mistake, it’s largely because of New Mexico. I actually think it’s the star of the film, along with the people. When I went to see it originally, it was because Bowie was in the film and we were surprised by how good it was. Now, to me it’s a film that Bowie’s in.”
Interviews with co-star Candy Clark, editor Graeme Clifford, costume designer May Routh, filmmaker Nile Southern (who visited the set as a teen with writer dad Terry), extras and others provide intriguing perspectives on the unconventional set and the film’s insecure but professional, literate and witty star, who was willing to try anything as an actor. One of the more amusing passages recounts Bowie’s attempt at fishing.
“That was surprising,” Compo says, laughing. “It wasn’t a big success, and it’s a little hard to picture, but the fact that he wanted to go out there and fish is very charming.”
She also covers his escalating drug abuse and deteriorating marriage to model Angie Barnett, who offers the bluntest commentary. Long estranged from her son with Bowie, filmmaker Duncan Zowie Jones, and often judged harshly in the press, Barnett is viewed more sympathetically in “Earthbound.”
“She was one of the people I talked to almost last,” Compo explains. “It kept preying on my mind that I wasn’t speaking to her or hadn’t reached out, and that didn’t seem right. I was really glad that I did; I really felt that I wanted to give her her due. In these situations, how do we really know what was happening? And it’s very easy, especially as we know now, for women to get marginalized in many ways, when in fact they have a lot to add to the conversation. I’m sure she’s not the easiest person in the world, but still, I don’t think he would have been the artist that he was without her input — definitely visually, and probably creatively for a certain period.”
Recalled through the prism of numerous individual memories rather than his own words, the late rock icon’s mystique remains. That may frustrate some readers. Bowie’s involvement with “The Man Who Fell to Earth” is the attention-getting lure into “Earthbound,” but for Compo the deepest hook was exploring what happened to novelist Walter Tevis’ original idea.
“What I wanted to do was look at this life cycle of a work of art,” she says, “starting with Tevis — he’s a force to be reckoned with too — and how his book became two different screenplays at least, and then a movie, and then what happened to that with its cutting and recent restoration and subsequent rereleases on DVD and Blu-Ray, and then the troubled TV adaptation, and then on to ‘Lazarus.’ It’s definitely had legs, this work of art. And I don’t think that’s the last of it. I’m sure something else will be done with it in the future.”
Susan Compo celebrates “Earthbound” with a book launch party at Velveteria, 711 High St., downtown LA, 9 p.m.-midnight Saturday, Nov. 11; free admission, but books will be for sale (cash only). Info: (626) 714-8545. Jawbonepress.com, Velveteria.com