A tribute to David Bowie and Alan Rickman

It is as if George R.R. Martin has taken up writing the year 2016, as two of Britain’s most beloved entertainers were stripped from our world, leaving behind bodies of work that will be remembered for decades to come. Gone is David Bowie, the multi-talented, awe-inspiring, artistic alien whose music and magic stands as unarguably the most enigmatic creative output from any artist over the past four decades. Also gone is Alan Rickman, the sultry-voiced gentleman and classically trained actor whose filmography was marked by iconic turns of villainy as characters like Severus Snape and Hans Gruber. Though both of their departures leave tragic gaps within the framework of performance art, their significance will be forever remembered through their immortal charismas, undying virtuosities, and admiring fans that loved them so dearly.

Illustration by Varenka Kim /The Phoenix News
Illustration by Varenka Kim /The Phoenix News

David Bowie

"I don't know where I'm going from here, but I know it won't be boring." - Bowie

David Bowie embodied more things than you can count on one hand. With one quick click onto his Wikipedia profile, you’ll find his occupation as listed: singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, record producer, arranger, painter and actor. Continue down the page and you’ll find various statements about how Bowie was, as music reviewer Brad Flicky puts it, “a musical chameleon” with the ability to completely alter the course of pop culture and fashion through his innovations in art rock, glam rock, pop, and electronic music. But this handful of occupations becomes a myriad of personalities when you consider the plethora of alter egos that Bowie embodied throughout his career, ranging from Ziggy Stardust, a red-headed, androgynous musical alien intent on inspiring the youth of Earth, to Aladdin Sane, the source of the striking red and blue lightning bolt that has become the most common symbol associated with Bowie. Yes, David Bowie was many things, and it becomes incredibly difficult to summarize the life of a man who meant so much to so many different people.

However, there is one term that shows a shred of potential in amply defining who David Bowie was. He was, simply put, a scene-stealer. At the core of his flamboyance, bravado, and peculiarity, there lived a trendsetter and the reason as to why every spotlight instantaneously focused on Bowie when he broke into the 1970s music scene with his iconic “Space Oddity”. Never before had music been exposed to such a reinvented, alien presence in both sound and stagecraft. Although there was, and always will be, the old wave and the new wave, Bowie somehow managed to attract both parties without attributing his style to either, but rather opting to be the personification of an artistic extremist. When his fellow rockers perceived pop stardom as contaminated and silly, Bowie liberated the conservative genre by moving into the world of the intangible through a complete abandonment of traditional rock instrumentation and injecting a new sophistication into what listeners thought rock music should be. When many of his colleagues did not recognize the potential found in other art forms, Bowie chose the route of pioneer and built an illustrious career as both actor and visual artist by taking advantage of skills he had developed as a musician and performer. When non-heterosexuals were facing social injustice in the 1970s, Bowie nonchalantly came out as a bisexual amidst a flurry of controversy and public attention. It was this striving, as Bowie stated in Fas Ferox, “to be something more than human” that allowed him to dominate so many different art forms, mesmerize so many different listeners, and tear the public eye far away from his contemporaries so that it could focus on the enigmatic and undefinable everyhuman he was.

Between the years of 1970 and 1980, David Bowie undoubtedly conquered the pop music scene. The 12 albums that he produced within the decade, from the paranoid proto-metal of The Man Who Sold the World (1970) to the evocative amalgam of electronica, world music, and art rock of Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980), mark one of the most prolific and experimental periods of musical output from any artist in history. In addition, they supplement a portfolio predicated on a reimagining of the limitations imposed upon music and iconography. As time progressed into the 1990s and 2000s, Bowie returned to the jazz roots that bore him, tending the soil of his first love while simultaneously incorporating a fertilizer comprised of new dance electronica and house music. Indeed, there may not be a musical artist in history who traversed such a dense variety of genres and experienced such a drastic artistic evolution throughout their respective career. But despite the remarkable dissimilarity between each production, Bowie’s collection of music remains unified by an artist who engaged in a perpetual internal and external search for inspiration—one who was dissatisfied with his past and permanently fearful of repeating himself.

Bowie’s distinctively ambiguous and genderless appearance initially served to reinforce his public role as the ultimate outsider, but it was his eventual foray into the world of acting that best utilized his physicality and mastery of movement. Just as his musical career was dictated by an everlasting goal for innovation, Bowie’s filmography was also characterized by diversity and variety. His first silver-screen debut in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) perfectly cast him as a tragic alien visitor who couldn’t grasp the strictures that defined humanity. In 1986, Bowie’s most memorable performance in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth as the enigmatic baby thief, Jareth the Goblin King, has since elevated the film to cult status. Critics lauded it as he possessed “just the right look for a creature who’s the object of both loathing and secret desire.” Since then he has made smaller appearances in an assortment of films, including a hilarious cameo in Zoolander (2001) and an organically detached appearance as genius inventor, Nikola Tesla, in Christopher Nolan’s 19th century magician drama The Prestige. Bowie’s time in acting demonstrated to the world that he was a performer first and musician second. Though acting is not the sole reason for his being a household name, it offers a reason to recognize Bowie as one of the most versatile artists of the past century.

This brings us to Blackstar, Bowie’s final album that was released on January 8, 2016—his 69th birthday—4 days before his death on January 12. In typical Bowie fashion, the album was a surprise to casual and die-hard Bowie fans alike, as many were unsure as to whether they would hear from the man ever again. How is Blackstar? Fitting. The experimental art-rock album is everything a David Bowie album should be: it amazed both critics and fans, came with Bowie’s final character, Lazarus, and reminded the masses of how grand of an artist Bowie truly was. There are obvious themes that permeate throughout Blackstar—that of departure, immortality, and finality—which, when taken in the context of Bowie’s death, mark a poignant swan song for a man who knew that Blackstar would be his final artistic gift to a world he had already given so much. An artist to the very end, Bowie perceived death not as something to be feared, but as something to be harnessed and used for artistic endeavour. As a result, Blackstar immortalizes him. Despite Bowie’s prevalent self-reflection across the seven tracks, he hints at the future as well, knowing that his work would extend his life far beyond what he recognized as his limited human body.

In a similar fashion to a mercurial asteroid in a rigorously organized solar system, it is disheartening to know that such a vibrant star in a culture so dedicated to what is popular, rather than what is different, has left our orbit. David Bowie’s departure not only marks the exodus of a man who forever changed our societal outlook on fashion, pop culture, and music, but also the departure of the characters we loved, the infinite melting pot of ideas he possessed, and his unwavering impulse to think differently. As Bowie croons in “Lazarus”, “Oh, I’ll be free. Just like that bluebird. Oh, I’ll be free. Ain’t that just like me,” it is with a heavy heart that the world says goodbye to a man that did so much for so many, but this goodbye is said with the knowledge that Bowie will finally become what he had always hoped for: something more than human.

Alan Rickman

"It would be wonderful to think that the future is unknown and sort of surprising." -Rickman

As an avid fan of the Harry Potter films and books growing up, I am no stranger to the immense presence of Alan Rickman. With his smooth, mysterious voice that could lull you to sleep and distress you the next second, the beauty of Alan Rickman was that he was the most likable villain any filmgoer could ever hope for. No matter how despicable and cruel his characters were, there was always something about Rickman that mesmerized and engrossed audiences. Indeed, the passing of Alan Rickman marks the end of a career so subtly crafted that I found myself amazed at the multitude of films in which he’s appeared. Nearly always avoiding the spotlight of the main protagonist, Rickman’s beauty as an actor depended on his skill to steal entire scenes without detracting from the journey of the hero. But despite this preference for the background, audiences always remembered Rickman’s roles. There is no Die Hard without Hans Gruber. There is no Harry Potter without Severus Snape.

Rickman first broke onto the mainstream acting scene in 1988’s Die Hard as German terrorist leader Hans Gruber—a role that, at the time, pitted him up against fellow up-and-comer Bruce Willis. Though Willis was, and still is, the shining star of Die Hard and its sequels, Rickman’s Gruber is regarded nearly 30 years later as one of the greatest scene-stealing villains in cinematic history. An intellectual mastermind, Rickman’s Gruber foreshadowed a career characterized by antagonistic characters who preferred mental victories over physical victories in order to remain countless cognitive steps ahead of their foils. Hans Gruber proved to the film industry that any film would be better with the addition of Alan Rickman. His filmography continued to grow into the 1990s and early 2000s, choosing such roles as the dutiful Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), the honourable Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility (1995), as well as Golden Globe-winning performance as the mystical faith healer, Grigori Rasputin, in HBO’s Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny. It’s no surprise that the casual film fan would cry, “Hey, that’s Snape!” upon immediate viewing of any of his productions that were made pre-Potter. However, I think it is important to recognize that Rickman’s treasure trove of character, throughout his acting in such a rich diversity of films, genres, and theatre productions, underlines the career of one of the most well renowned classical actors within the past several decades.

Which brings us to Harry Potter and, undoubtedly, Rickman’s most recognized role. As the Harry Potter books had not been finished at the start of the Harry Potter film franchise, many book readers experienced Rickman’s Severus Snape without knowing the ultimate fate of his character (spoiler-alert: he dies). For every child who grew up with the Harry Potter franchise, Snape was the most frustrating riddle for a period of life in which everything is a mystery, and I think it safe to argue that Rickman was the major reason for this. Post-Potter, Rickman spoke fondly of his role, saying that the character "[has something] more to him than meets the eye. It’s something unnameable. He lives within a very tight confines emotionally, physically.”

Under an unrelenting grimace and leathery black hair, Rickman’s Snape is regarded by many as the real hero of the Harry Potter franchise. His capacity to show glimpses of gallantry within a character so magnificently masked by agony made the misfortunate lyricism of Snape’s end one of the most poignant and moving events in the collective consciousness of every teenage soul that evolved with Harry and his companions. Having to embody a reluctant father figure, stringent teacher, mournful lover, and loyal guardian within a single role, it is truly impossible to imagine a character with the fascinating complexity of Snape being depicted by anyone other than Rickman.

Rickman’s heroism as Snape not only inspired countless youth to place moral virtue over the temptation of amnesia, but his acting prowess also served to encourage and guide one of the most vulnerable child actors in film history. Daniel Radcliffe cites Rickman as “one of the first of the adults on Potter to treat me like a peer rather than a child. Working with him at such a formative age was incredibly important and I will carry the lessons he taught me for the rest of my life and career.” Radcliffe’s growth as an actor throughout the Potter films is evident and was heavily influenced by Rickman. Years after the Harry Potter franchise had run its course, Rickman continued to attend and support Radcliffe’s theatre forays, even without Radcliffe’s deliberate invitation.

“He didn’t have to do that,” said Radcliffe in a touching tribute written to Rickman on January 14, “I know other people who've been friends with him for much, much longer than I have and they all say ‘if you call Alan, it doesn't matter where in the world he is or how busy he is with what he's doing, he'll get back to you within a day.’”

As quiet as his characters, the man never demanded the spotlight, yet it naturally fell upon him. An omniscient teacher on film sets, who demanded excellence from his colleagues through sheer presence and stature, Rickman was a once-in-a-generation actor whose dastardly villains competed with the reality of who he was: a quaint, humourous gentleman with the propensity to enlighten all those around him. Though his double bass of a voice and his magnetic charm will be forever absent from cinema upon his death, his legacy lives on, peacefully, in his towering mountain of work. Will his presence ever grace the stage again? Never. But will we remember him? “Always.”