Earthbound, however, doesn’t provide a ton of insight into Bowie himself, who was at an unusual place in his personal life during the shooting of the movie. Reclusive and dependent on cocaine, he remained a mysterious if friendly wraith to the crew that made up the production. Compo’s narrative remains at a journalistic remove, with heavy first-hand reporting from those participating and a thorough beat-by-beat survey of the actual filming process, down to minor yet interesting details. The strength of her reporting is bolstered by her full immersion in the New Mexico locations that provided the movie’s visuals.
But in addition to the absence of Bowie, Compo’s book also tells us regrettably little about The Man Who Fell to Earth’s director, Nicolas Roeg. Without access to the director and few second-hand accounts to draw from, Compo has little to reveal about his motives and attitudes toward translating Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel to the screen, and his stylish, surreal filmmaking flourishes remain opaque. (One exception: Compo's explanation of Roeg’s approach toward the story’s passage of time, which he deliberately left vague in order to disorient the viewer.)
Compo, however, does an excellent job in detailing the injustices the film suffered once filming concluded, when American distributors tried to streamline the narrative and dropped a clumsily edited, unapproved version of the film in cinemas, where it largely sank without a trace. She also debunks the rumors of a Bowie-composed soundtrack (apart from "Subterraneans," which surfaced on Low, it seems very little was actually committed to tape) and emphasizes the crucial component of Walter Tevis’ source material; the brief biography she provides of the neglected writer is a worthy glimpse at an overlooked American master. There’s more than enough in Earthbound for fans of the film to be satisfied—although those Bowie fans who hold no love for Roeg’s strange, at times chilly movie might not find enough to get their hands around. I think there might have also been room for a thorough critical evaluation of the film, which can be baffling to first-time viewers but holds a woozy, spooky magic of its own in repeated viewings. But what Compo provides in Earthbound is more than enough to give readers worthwhile insight into the crazy trip that Bowie, Roeg, and the cast and crew concocted in New Mexico back in that summer of ’75.
UPDATE: The Hollywood Theatre will show The Man Who Fell to Earth at 7:30 pm on Tuesday, February 20 (tickets available). Earthbound's author, Susan Compo, will be in attendance.
Earthbound: David Bowie and The Man Who Fell to Earth
by Susan Compo