Even if you're not a fan of David Bowie (perish the thought), you know -- and probably love -- his ubiquitous "Space Oddity."
The single from Bowie's 1969 eponymous album describes a mission to space that starts out adventurous, then turns disastrous, and ends with its hero, Major Tom, drifting above the earth in his "tin can" of a malfunctioning ship, resignedly awaiting his lonely and inevitable death.
A riff itself on the title of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Space Oddity" was one of the Bowie's greatest hits in its heyday. But the reason you know it, even if you don't know you know it, is that it's also had a second life as the ultimate soundtrack song, creating the perfect ambiance for movies and shows of all kinds -- by acting as the backdrop to cinematic journeys both literal and emotional, or just expressing the disconnected, drifting loneliness of heroes who are trapped in outer space, emotionally speaking.
Among the great onscreen moments made possible by "Space Oddity":
Ground control to Major Tom.
Walter Mitty doesn't have to be alone on a spaceship to feel that way -- and to long for someone to reach out, across that vast distance between him and the rest of the human race, and connect with him. Cue this fantasy, in which a performance of "Space Oddity" by his coworker crush is the thing that finally brings him back to earth.
Check ignition, and may God's love be with you.
In this scene from "Mad Men," Don Draper gets into his own personal "tin can" (the all-American classic automobile) and blasts off, not into space, but on a cross-country road trip. Like Major Tom's expedition, Don's journey is all about taking off into the unknown -- and it's anyone's guess whether he'll land safely, or even at all. (Sadly, Don Draper doesn't realize that the ad world is inescapable; even the astronaut of Bowie's song is interrupted mid-mission by a request to know whose shirts he wears.)
Here am I sitting in my tin can.
It's a boat, not a space ship, and Steve Zissou is a diver, not an astronaut, but those are pretty much the only differences between Wes Anderson's lonely, driven hero and Bowie's ill-fated spaceman. It's not hard to see why "Space Oddity" made an appearance in "The Life Aquatic."
And I'm floating in a most peculiar way.
All the loneliness and longing of a man shot into space comes to a head on the dance floor in "Eva," as Daniel Brühl, inspired by the familiar strains of "Space Oddity," dares to leave the figurative capsule of social conventions and address his unresolved feelings for his ex-girlfriend... who just happens to be married to Brühl's brother.
And the stars look very different today.
When "Space Oddity" pops up onscreen, it's usually to make some symbolic statement about the emotional state of the hero -- but in "Mr. Deeds," it served a more straightforward purpose as the centerpiece for a weird little male bonding moment between a bunch of dudes on an actual airplane.
Your circuit's dead, there's something wrong; can you hear me, Major Tom?
And finally, on the subject of ill-fated journeys in claustrophobic spaces: With emphasis mostly on the "oddity" part, the song made the perfect backdrop to this scene from "Supernatural," in which Dean disposes of an angry fairy by cooking it in the microwave.
That's the magic of "Space Oddity": It's suitable for all occasions, from the profound to the absurd. And despite it having already set the musical tone for so many onscreen moments, expect to hear it many more times, in many more scenes.
For filmmakers, there may never be a better song to tell stories by: about the loneliness of a hero's journey, the human yearning for connection, and the infinite, awesome strangeness of space -- outer, and within.