FOR AN EMBARRASSINGLY large number of us, the first David Bowie song we ever heard was "Underground," the opening song to Labyrinth. That's not exactly an auspicious window into Bowie's unparalleled musical legacy. As Jareth the Goblin King, Bowie probably made a more lasting impression in Jim Henson's 1986 puppet fantasy for his glass orb twirling (a stunt hand, not Bowie's) rather than for any musical contributions—despite whatever merits "Magic Dance" may possess (hint: none).
While Bowie's discography speaks for itself, he's always been one of the better rocker-turned-actors, taking roles that fit his otherworldly persona—none more so than in his first major film role in 1976's The Man Who Fell to Earth, a new print of which screens this week. Bowie found another suitable match for his deathless, glamorous pallor in 1983's The Hunger, in which he plays Catherine Deneuve's vampire slave. Directed by Ridley Scott's younger brother Tony, the movie is a campy, gothic treat that's enraptured with its own morose stylishness. The lesbian sex scene between Deneuve and Susan Sarandon aside, the other highlight of The Hunger is when Bowie ages 200 years in front of the camera, becoming completely unrecognizable under layers of makeup.
Bowie's also found a small niche playing real-life historical figures: His spot-on Andy Warhol is the only worthwhile thing in 1996's muddled Basquiat, and his Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) is pitched perfectly: slightly fey, smart, weary, and touchingly concerned with the messianic nutjob he's about to sentence to crucifixion. Bowie's last memorable role was in 2006—although biographer Paul Trynka's recent announcement of Bowie's supposed "retirement" is total bunk—in Christopher Nolan's magician-thriller The Prestige. As a highly fictionalized version of Nikola Tesla, Bowie is both paternally warm and ice cold at the same time.
Lastly, although Bowie doesn't appear in it, mention should be made of The Life Aquatic; Seu Jorge's Portuguese reinterpretations are the best use of Bowie's music yet on film.