Hello KEXP friends. This Saturday on my show (3pm-6pm) I’ll be taking a look at the David Bowie songs on the soundtrack to the film The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. Some of them are sung by David himself. But the musical surprise in this film is when the character Safety Specialist Pele appears on screen with just his guitar and starts singing and playing Bowie covers acoustically, with the words translated into Portuguese. There are many clips of these covers, I’m guessing about 7, done throughout the film.
This mystery man is Brazilian singer-songwriter Seu Jorge. And the Bowie songs are some of my favorites and since I know them so well, it’s almost like being able to understand Portuguese.
When I first saw The Life Aquatic, I was disappointed. Wes Anderson is one of my favorite directors and I was expecting a movie with deep relationships and multi-faceted characters like the ones in Rushmore and The Royal Tannenbaums. So Steve Zissou (played by Bill Murray) seemed pretty flat and in fact most of the characters were kind of distant (even those of incredible actors Cate Blanchett and Anjelica Huston) and unknowable.
But somehow this movie stayed with me. And I remembered the tricked-out boat, the Jaques Cousteau-ian high regard for sea life and less regard for human life.
And I watched it again. And again. Now I understand that the characters in this movie (except for the “bond company stoog”) have trouble feeling and expressing their feelings, but they’re trying. And that’s the point of the film, maybe. That Zissou is actually kind of a jerk, but he does realize it and reaches out to people (after he slams them) and that eventually everyone in the film identifies with him and trusts his imperfect process. Now I get tears in my eyes every time the crew put their hands on him in the submarine... We all go through this struggle. Maybe even every day.
And the music echoes this. Bowie, one of my favorite artists, is also kind of unknowable and distant. But if you listen close to his songs, there’s a lot in there.... Hidden/exposed. Here’s the video and lyrics to “Life on Mars”:
It’s a god-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair
But her mummy is yelling “No”
And her daddy has told her to go
But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen
But the film is a saddening bore
‘Cause she’s lived it ten times or more
She could spit in the eyes of fools
As they ask her to focus on
Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man! Look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the Lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?
When Seu Jorge appears on screen singing this song, it’s done so much more emotionally. Simply. But still kind of unknowable because it’s in a different language. And you know very little about the character. The mystery remains.
This Saturday on the show, I’ll play the legal limit (3-in-a-row) of Bowie covers done by Seu Jorge in the movie. And will play the Bowie originals right next to them. I can’t wait.
Michele Myers chooses the music for and hosts a Saturday afternoon show on KEXP from 3-6pm Seattle time. She writes and produces KEXP Documentaries and hosts for KEXP in New York on 91.5FM WNYE.