Why David Bowies Songs Are Perfect for Dramatic Impact in Films From ‘Top Gun’ to ‘Glass Onion’

Several of this year’s Academy Award-nominee possibilities for Best Picture have something in common: They’ve used David Bowie’s music to illustrate pertinent script points, heighten a scene’s emotionality or simply enrich a mood.

“When you use a David Bowie song… his work as an artist is always so meaningful,” says Randy Spendlove, the President of Motion Picture Music at Paramount and the man behind the music supervision of “Top Gun: Maverick,” one of 2022’s prime movers for poignant, sync-filled soundtracks.

In “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” Rian Johnson used tracks from Bowie’s glam classic “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” to portray scenes of camaraderie among the longtime friends as they dodging detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig).

While “Starman” is meant to illustrate the fun of the group (played by Janelle Monáe, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., Kate Hudson and Dave Bautista) first meeting its soon-to-be host (a longhaired Edward Norton), the hard-driving “Star” shows those same friends, in the present day, hating on Norton’s cocksure billionaire in a “toast of the disruptors.”


Kyle Balda’s animated “Minions: The Rise of Gru” finds the young titular character (played by Steve Carell) and his big-eyed, blobby pals grooving to another of Bowie’s glam-era tracks, the anthemic “All the Young Dudes” made popular in 1972 by Mott the Hoople.

In Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths,” the filmmaker and his composer Bryce Dessner chose a tapestry of emotive needle drops to accompany the journey of a Mexican journalist-filmmaker returning to his homeland. Bowie’s rhythmic epiphany “Let’s Dance” illustrates the joy of reconnection in all of its bold-faced pleasures.

In some cases, a Bowie song sets a scene, and allows a mood to linger longer – such as the use of “Let’s Dance” in “Top Gun: Maverick,” and its barroom meeting between Capt. Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell (Tom Cruise) and Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly).

“When I get the call, it’s generally with filmmakers with whom I’ve worked in the past,” says Spendlove. “If it’s a “Top Gun” or a “Mission: Impossible,” we like to get involved, go deep…. a great needle drop always comes down to the emotion of a scene, how it makes you feel. Music is the most important emotional tool that a filmmaker can have” (It is also one of its most pertinent considering 1986’s original “Top Gun” soundtrack and its 9 × Platinum sales status).

As both of those franchises involve Cruise – an actor-producer renowned for being hands-on in every aspect of a film – Spendlove says that being involved with “Top Gun: Maverick” meant “the best of the best,” and a music team “led by Tom, (producer) Jerry Bruckheimer, (director) Joe Kosinski with me, meeting weekly to discuss and curate every note and every cue. Everything was very intentional.”

For the bar scene between Cruise and Connelly’s characters, the “Top Gun: Maverick” team sought to create an important environment for its aviators.

“Using “Let’s Dance” was about interaction – what song would they be listening to, together, if they were all playing pool and hanging out – as well as the surprise of having those two characters reunite. The key to that song is that it had to make you feel as if you were in the bar with them, and Bowie did just that.”


Director-writer Charlotte Wells, in the heartbreaking rumination on father-daughter relationships that is “Aftersun,” made Queen and David Bowie’s 1981 hit, “Under Pressure” part of her script as its emotive climax.

“Aftersun” music supervisor Lucy Bright told Variety that “Under Pressure” is meant to illustrate the delicate, awkward dance – literally and figuratively – of a father and his daughter, is highlighted by the unbridled power of Bowie and Freddie Mercury’s vocals.

“Not to take aside the beautiful musicality of it all, but just as pure technical singers, hearing those voices so exposed, I think, did bring a rawness that allows it to sort of change as the picture’s changing and then as the score comes in and takes it to another level. Not all songs can do that, for sure. I mean, it’s not even really a classic verse/chorus/verse song. So, it’s already got that ability to do something that’s maybe more operatic, in the sort of broadest sense of telling a story through the vocals.”


If you are looking to comment about David Bowie’s music in relation to potentially Oscar-nominated fare, there is, of course, “Moonage Daydream,” from filmmaker Brett Morgen whose new musical memoir is wall-to-wall Bowie, and likely a film to be nominated for Best Documentary Feature.

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