Can David Bowie get away with playing Jesus? He certainly makes a more stylish fist of it than Kanye West squawking ' I am God! I am God!' at the Met Gala this week. And one imagines the Dame won't get the same amount of anger from the Catholic camp as Nicki Minaj did after her exorcism performance at the 2012 Grammys (UPDATE: I was wrong).
The new video for 'The Next Day' has landed and it's just what you'd expect: batshit, beautiful and controversial. It was made by Floria Sigismondi, a prolific music video director who's worked with Björk, Marilyn Manson, The Cure, The White Stripes and lots more. Gary Oldman stars as a horny priest, alongside Marion Cotillard, a weary prostitue working in a pub/brothel that caters for the the religious orders.
In this post-modern, secularist age when the relationship between music and religion is mainly dormant, trust David Bowie to stage a video that climaxes with Marion Cotillard, a sex worker for priests, break out in stigmata, her blood spurting all over an albino with her boobs out. Bowie doesn't do half measures. Whether you think he's directly attacking the Catholic church in general and the celibacy of their priests, or just making a cool short film, it's refreshing to see a musician getting stuck in with the holy side of life.
Bowie's religious affiliations have never been clear cut. "I am not quite an atheist and it bothers me," he said in an interview with Esquire in 2005. He's flirted with Buddhism, Satanism, Christianity and apparently visited a White Witch in New York to cure his cocaine addiction.
One thing's sure: we'll never know if there's a deeper meaning to 'The Next Day' video, though this Bowie quote form 2005 suggests it might just be a bit of fun:
I do have a passion for the visual in religious rituals, though, even though they may be completely empty and bereft of substance
You can't go wrong with sex and religion, especially when it's splattered with buckets of blood. Apart from the Sri Lanka heavy metal band and a song by new Kings Of Leon-signed band The Weeks, stigmata isn't natural thematic fodder for pop music. David Bowie's monk character, lead singer of the ecclesiastic sleaze-club's house band, is blamed for the wounds that appear on the palms of Cotillard's hands. Oldman cries "You see this? This is your doing! You call yourself a prophet?!" Crucfixion wounds are not the loveliest image but an OTT, gaudy touch turns something shocking into a quasi-humourous gorefest.
Like Tilda Swinton's spearmint-gree eye shadow in the video for Bowie's second single 'The Stars Are Out Tonight', there are some stunning details in this new one: Cotillard's purple martini, Oldman's Danny Zuko pomade do, the woman with long black hair for her lower lashes, and, erm, the grinning dude flaggelating his back in the corner.
There are deeper religious references too if you look closely. The lady with a plate of gouged-out eyes? That'd be Saint Lucy, a young Christian martyr in Syracuse during the Diocletian persecutions of 304 AD. Apparently this guy Paschasius made his guards pull her eyes out before she was executed. Hence she's now the patron saint of sight (which feels like rubbing salt in the wound somewhat). Did you spot the name of the club? The Decameron refers to Boccaccio's epic tales about, among other things, the lust and hypocrisy of the church.
Oldman's Bad Priest role begins with him walloping a young whelp begging for money outside the brothel before kissing a cardinal's hand and fixing his eye on Cotillard, at the bar in a basque. He sniffs around her in the creepiest way, looks her up and down and leads her to the dancefloor, bringing to mind the lyric "Then drags them to the river‘s bank in the cart/Their soggy paper bodies wash ashore in the dark/And the priest stiff in hate now demanding fun begin/Of his women dressed as men for the pleasure of that priest". The last (and only) time Bowie and Oldman previously acted together was when the former played Warhol to Oldman's character based on Julian Schnabel in 'Basquiat' (1996).
Bowie's robes look as if they could be Nazarene, he's referred to as a prophet and at the end of the video he's bathed in a light before ascending upwards. Let's not beat around the burning bush: he's playing Jesus. But in a much more British way than other pop artists have done before him. Remember Kanye's Rolling Stone cover?