There’s a lot to love about The Prestige. Stage magicians. The Batman team of Bale and Cain. But perhaps the best thing about the movie, in my mind, was David Bowie assuming the role of Nikola Tesla. It seems that kind of perfect Hollywood casting, not only for Bowie’s wonderful performance, but for the similarities between the two men.
The moment we meet Tesla in the movie, he’s walking through a field of electricity, unfazed, untouched. It’s a thrilling introduction, and one that reflects both Tesla and Bowie.
Director Christopher Nolan apparently always wanted Bowie for the role, knowing that he needed someone who wasn’t a Hollywood star, but someone who would stand out in the part. I think he sensed that the character of Tesla demanded someone different, someone with that same theatrical presence. Bowie initially refused until Nolan flew out to meet with him and told him he was the only choice. Bowie accepted.
The two men, Bowie and Tesla, were, of course, separated by decades as well as by backgrounds—Tesla was a Serbian inventor and engineer, Bowie was an English musician—but they have more in common than is at first obvious.
Both men were innovators in their respective fields, taking them in new directions. Tesla started his career in the United States working for Thomas Edison, but while Edison backed direct current, Tesla developed the superior alternating current. Bowie started out writing songs in a kind of folk rock style, but starting with The Man Who Sold the World, he began using a heavier rock style and exploiting his own androgyny to help create an identity. Later experiments in creating personas resulted in the massively popular Ziggy Stardust character, the ultimate rock star from Mars. Biographer David Buckley said it “challenged the core belief of the rock music of its day.”
Tesla was a polyglot, speaking eight languages. Bowie plays at least eight different musical instruments, including the saxophone. Both men also demonstrated skills outside of their chosen fields. One of Tesla’s friends said of him, “seldom did one meet a scientist or engineer who was also a poet, a philosopher, an appreciator of fine music, a linguist, and a connoisseur of food and drink.” Bowie is also something of a renaissance man himself. In addition to being a singer, songwriter and musician, he’s been an actor, a mime, a fashion icon, a painter, a writer, and even flirted briefly with video game creation and design (in Omikron: The Nomad Soul).
Both men were/are natural performers. Tesla would hold public conferences with his Tesla coil blasting electricity, something that often scared his audience. His demonstrations of his inventions has been compared to the work of stage magicians (something that no doubt mandated his inclusion in The Prestige). Bowie, as mentioned, studied mime with Lindsay Kemp, and that helped introduce him to a more theatrical presence and the ability to create personas to present to the world. He’s said of the process, “Offstage I’m a robot. Onstage I achieve emotion. It’s probably why I prefer dressing up as Ziggy to being David.”
As such talented people often do, they were friends with other creative contemporaries as well. Tesla, for example, was friends with Mark Twain and others like Robert Underwood Johnson. Bowie famously was friends with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed and also other musicians such as John Lennon and Mick Jagger, as well as having friends in the film and fashion worlds.
Both men held questionable beliefs at times. Tesla was a proponent of eugenics, while Bowie, in his Thin White Duke phase, flirted with an appreciation for fascism, something he later blamed on his addictions and getting lost in that character.
Of course, there were stark differences between the two as well. For example, Tesla believed celibacy helped his work while Bowie notoriously bedded men and women before his marriage to Iman. Tesla died a poor man despite his many patents whereas Bowie is also an accomplished businessman who has turned his musical success into massive financial success as well.
What’s undeniable is that both are remarkable individuals and, in my opinion, they come together perfectly in The Prestige. I consider them both geniuses, with a touch of mad scientist and David Bowie will leave behind a musical legacy as rich and affecting as Tesla’s technological one.
Rajan Khanna is a writer, narrator, and blogger who takes inspiration from both Bowie and Tesla. He is currently working in his lab to create a hybrid creature called Bowsla who will revolutionize the world. His website is www.rajankhanna.com.