For several decades, I’ve been lugging around a venerable VHS tape, despite having no relevant mechanical apparatus to play it on. It’s a rare film, the first feature film made by David Bowie before he made The Man Who Fell to Earth and not released until 1978, and it’s been pretty hard to see over the years unless you’ve got cash to gamble on such an unlikely source of entertainment. That period of unavailability is well and truly over now, with the film turning up on the Freevee streaming channel to reward Bowie completists and confuse most everyone else who thought they knew their Thin White Duke.
So there is a genuine, rather tragic story here; we’re looking at the ruins of a film rather than a complete narrative, since the original footage was destroyed in a fire, and director David Hemmings tried to string together what was left into a coherent film. That kinda explains why Just A Gigolo has been fairly lost to casual viewers over the years, but I thought this movie was something of a find on VHS, and even presented in the wrong aspect ratio on streaming services, it’s something of a cultural curiosity.
Set in the post-Cabaret period of interest in pre-WWII Germany, Just a Gigolo offers Bowie a substantial leading role as Prussian officer Paul Ambrosius von Przygodski, introduced by a long tracking shot as he traverses a WWI battlefield in military garb. The historical context is the ‘stab in the back’, a moment in which some Germans felt they were betrayed by their leaders calling a halt to a war that the ordinary soldiers felt was not yet over; it’s often mentioned as a cause for the rise of the Nazi Party in Weimar Germany, and that turns out to be of specific importance to this story. After a spell recovering in hospital, Bowie returns to Berlin in a state of shell-shock, wearing cloth cap and with a pig under one arm, and gets a job walking the streets dressed in a giant bottle to advertise a brand of alcohol; he ends up in undignified circumstances stuck in a public urinal promoting the oh-er missus line ‘Is it your bottle blocking my entrance?’
We skip forward to Winter 1923; as a spoiler alert, the weight of history hangs over this film in a big way; ‘There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to avoid the mistakes made by Napoleon,’ is the advice he gets, but Paul has a different fate in store; in the film’s final scenes, he’s abruptly murdered in a seedy gang-fight. The fake news division of the Nazi party quickly start making a martyr of him, making Paul the first domino to fall in the rise of Hitler. “We have great ambitions for you,’ says Hemmings ominously as a Nazi recruiter who has been stalking Paul from the side-lines. Paul’s death directly provides a focal point for a political uprising; ‘Not to unite Germany but to unite the German people, we will not let them get away with it,’ is the party line that takes advantage of his demise. This abrupt recasting of Bowie’s character as a Horst Wessel figure, a historical figure that we only understand in context of a final twist, makes Just a Gigolo worth the effort; it’s clear that Hemmings had lofty ideals for what his film might have been.
The narrative through-line isn’t quote clear, but there are songs from Manhattan Transfer, romance with Sydne Rome, Bond villain Curd Jurgens, a fairly lavish tap-dance, Kim Novak, and perambulations around various Berlin monuments. There’s also an anti-climactic encounter with Marlene Dietrich which was Bowie’s main reason for making this film, but the different film-stock and lighting suggest that the two stars are clearly not in the same city at the time of filming, although one person is credited with the tricky job of doing hair and make-up for Bowie and Dietrich alike.
‘You know what I gave up for lent? Religion,’ is one of the smarter lines here; Bowie’s delivery changes dramatically over the film, opening himself up for mockery in his debut, and yet that’s probably right for a character who goes from naivety to decadence and back. This is a British led European production about German history, told via the gossip of prattling old ladies on street corners, and the results are questionable. Playing an alien for Nicolas Roeg turned out to be a better fit for Bowie’s acting talents, but with wild set pieces like a surreal shoot-out at a funeral, Just A Gigolo is never boring to watch, and the arcane dialogue ranges from ‘I don’t think we should play around until the Kaiser returns …How perspicacious!..’ to ‘Don’t you think it’s a little late for giving orders, Miss Frau con Kaiserling?’’
Bowie quickly moved on to more commercial projects, but Just A Gigolo isn’t quite the disaster that was widely reported at the time; it’s a unique historical fiction that actually shows Bowie’s splintered identify to good effect in a madcap, bohemian context that foreshadows many tropes that would be explored in both the acting and musical career that followed. Maybe David Lee Roth sung it better, but the song remains the same; for Bowie, it’s the movie which kickstarted his career as a cracked actor, and i’s a rarity that is still worth a passing look in 2023.
‘I’m just a gigolo, and everywhere I go, People know the part I’m playing
Paid for every dance, selling each romance Oh, what they’re saying?
There will come a day, and youth will pass away
What will they say about me? When the end comes, I know those were just a gigolo’s
Life goes on without me.’