'Valerian': How Luc Besson Secured David Bowie's 'Space Oddity' for a Big Sequence

As many filmmakers can attest, it’s not a god-awful small affair to license a classic David Bowie track for your feature film. But Luc Besson knew he had to have the rock icon’s 1969 favorite,Space Oddity, for his sci-fi epic, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. As the French director tells Yahoo Movies, he set his sights on the song three years ago, long before he shot a frame of his long-in-the-works adaptation of the French comic book series, and before Bowie’s much-mourned passing in February 2016 from liver cancer. “I knew I wanted that song since the beginning,” Besson says. “I did the entire storyboard [for the sequence it accompanies] with that song. It’s almost a music video; I matched the song to the image.”

You’ll hear more of “Space Oddity” in Valerian than you might expect; the song spans the entirety of a montage, which compresses an entire alternate history of manned space flight — from the 20th to the 28th centuries — into three minutes. During that millennia-spanning period, an unassuming satellite orbiting Earth becomes a meeting point between our world and the rest of the galaxy, growing bigger and bigger until it becomes its own teeming metropolis known as Alpha, the titular city of a thousand planets and alien species. It’s a hopeful vision of the future that provides a welcome respite from the darker depictions of human/extraterrestrial relations on display in films like Life and Alien: Covenant. “Why are the aliens always the villains?” Besson asks. “I wanted to write something positive. This is my way of saying, ‘Are you sure we cannot live together?‘”

Besson relies on Bowie’s majestic song to communicate that hope for a better, brighter tomorrow. In fact, he specifically timed the sequence so that the opening guitar chords of “Space Oddity” accompany man’s initial journey to the stars, with that big bass riff flooding the soundtrack at the exact moment of first contact between Earthlings and extraterrestrials. “When the first alien comes into the frame, you get the bass guitar. If you’re in a good theater, the music just explodes at that moment.” As you might imagine, it took countless hours of listening to “Space Oddity” to perfectly sync Bowie’s sounds with the images flowing through Besson’s mind. “I didn’t notice it, but I was listening to the song in my car all the time. My kids got fed up! I remember my daughter saying one day, ‘Can we change the song, please?'”

Since the Valerian sequence is so specifically choreographed to “Space Oddity,” it would have been a major issue had Besson not been able to secure the rights. Fortunately, he had an inside connection to Bowie, having previously cast the singer as the voice of Emperor Maltazard, the villain of Besson’s 2006 animated film, Arthur and the Invisibles. “I knew him a little bit from that, so we asked him and he said yes pretty fast,” Besson remembers, adding that he wasn’t aware of the extent of Bowie’s illness at the time of their request. “I knew he was not feeling good, but I didn’t know [his illness] was at that point.” The singer ultimately passed away before he could view the completed sequence, which compounds the tragedy of his loss for Besson. “I was so happy with the scene, I couldn’t wait to show it to him,” the director remarks. “It makes me sad that I couldn’t. But I’m sure they have a good screening room up there. I hope he’s going to watch it, and enjoy it, up there.”

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