David Bowie Tribute: When Bowie Met Moroder on “Cat People”

Passion of the Weiss takes the week to celebrate the life and mourn the death of David Bowie.
By    January 14, 2016


Will Schube walked out of “Cats, The Musical” when he was six because it was just too much.

Read the rest of the David Bowie Tribute here. 

You know the scene by now: The title card as the music begins, then a slight nod to Douglas Sirk before red lipstick is applied to the beautiful face. The projection room grows claustrophobic as Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent) overlooks an auditorium of ecstatic Nazis. David Bowie’s voice comes in deep, haunting, and pensive. The close-ups are suffocatingly framed. She sips from a glass of wine as red as the dress she wears. Finally, the war paint. Perhaps an ode to Bowie, we get the red streaks across her face.

Flashbacks to the process. “Let’s lock a bunch of Nazis in a theater and burn them alive.” The idea seems silly, but Bowie’s operatic performance could kick just about anything onto a plane of seriousness. This scene from the still ridiculously spelled Inglourious Basterds was my introduction to “Cat People.” But like most of Quentin Tarantino’s best moments, the song was recycled from cinema past.

The entire scene in Basterds is hushed. Important information is conveyed via subtitle, but the moment would lose its entire power if Bowie’s voice ceded entirely to Tarantino’s trademark dialogue. The song is chillingly forceful upon first listen, and it doesn’t age a bit. It’s bombastic without teetering towards overindulgence, theatrical without the fourth wall.

“Cat People” first appeared as accompaniment to Paul Schrader’s 1982 film of the same name, and it’s one of those movies that ages well as our societal sensibilities sharpen and our tastes refine. Cat People (’82) wasn’t the first Cat People, however. The original appeared in 1942 courtesy of Jacques Tourneur, a French director with serious American populist filmmaking sensibilities. The film was horrifying for 1942, not at all now, but still retains some breathtaking cinematic qualities. The updated version enlisted Bowie for its title track, so it’s immediately vaulted to the peak of Cat People renditions. “Cat People” was recorded and written in collaboration with Giorgio Moroder (he did the score), who has enjoyed quite a resurgence thanks to the Midas touch of Daft Punk.

“Cat People” is surely one of Bowie’s strongest performances. It’s also one of his most ridiculous. Bowie’s best is a concoction of the sublime and the silly—highlighting the beauty within farce and how this artificiality is as true a reflection of us as capital-t- Truth projects itself to be. His voice on “Cat People” is both precise and massive, and the instruments are like time-bombs waiting to go off. Yet “Cat People” often goes overlooked when scanning the Duke’s discography. Perhaps the 80s release date stamped on its forehead is a turn off. No one was supposed to survive the 80s, not even Bowie. But he did. Inglourious Basterds may have revived “Cat People” to a sea of unknowing Bowie fans, but as Tarantino’s work tends to do, it also introduced an audience to the riches from which he plundered.

“Cat People” takes on so many different contexts, but perhaps greatest of all, as track number seven on Let’s Dance. Let’s Dance is David Bowie’s fifteenth album and a rather strange record. It was made in 1983 and features an Iggy Pop cover and co-production from Nile Rodgers. It feels like the first time Bowie’s unabashed pop phase really clicks, and much of the album expertly balances “Cat People’s” over-indulgence with an impeccable feel for subtlety. And who was Bowie if not a master of balance?

To manage so many personas without losing an identity that threads the masks together—and unites a world (just look at the outpouring of eulogies)—isn’t a feat, it’s a miracle. But when framed in the light of Bowie, the miraculous happens every day. After a lifetime of jumping from Station to Station and body to body, perhaps David Bowie finally gave into his own advice: “Just be still with me, you wouldn’t believe what I’ve been through.”

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