Golden Years

On that David Bowie Dance Sequence from A Knight's Tale

I heard “Golden Years” for the first time in A Knight’s Tale. Let me slow down and unpack that for you: I heard David Bowie’s 1975 hit single “Golden Years” for the first time in the 2001 medieval times teen comedy A Knight’s Tale, starring Heath Ledger and Shannyn Sossamon. A Knight’s Tale—which just popped back up streaming on Netflix—is famous for its place in the turn-of-the-century canon of cheeky, anachronistic musical cues in popular film. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet preceded it, and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette perfected it, and these films rightly comprise the definitive style guide for how to play pop records in movies about historical periods before recorded music. It’s how Coppola turned a film about the villainess of the French Revolution into an aching film about being a teenage girl. But the sheer hysterical ham-handedness of A Knight’s Tale having the crowd at a joust chant “We Will Rock You” or sound-tracking a swordfighting montage to “Takin’ Care of Business” deserves at least some credit for throwing open the floodgates with such vulgar gusto.  

I knew about David Bowie; I loved him already. But my musical education through high school was patchy, if avidly pursued. I didn’t have cool older siblings or too many cool older friends or even that many cool friends of any age to tell me about what to listen to. Once, somebody I met at an Amnesty International Write-a-Thon loaned me a stack of riot grrrl albums, and my friend Thom kept pushing Yo La Tengo at me, but, other than that, what I knew about music I knew from poring over, frenziedly flipping through, and ritually exegizing my orange SPIN Alternative Record Guide and my red and blue Rolling Stone Album Guide. Just as the QAnon people advise, I “did my research” and came up with spotty information to which I fanatically adhered. Led by the revelations within those canonical sources, though, I was able to go to Half Price Books or The Record Exchange or wherever and pick up Hunky Dory and Aladdin Sane and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. All in those glorious green Rykodisc CD jewel cases. Neither book recommended Station to Station enough to warrant the expenditure of $3.50 for a used copy, and, at that time, I was about as comfortable downloading music on the internet as I would have been purchasing an exotic snake from the back of an unmarked van. So, by the time I walked into the Northway Mall cinema to see A Knight’s Tale, I didn’t know a thing about the era of the Thin White Duke.

The thing about the “Golden Years” drop is that it’s unusual even within the film. The logic of Romeo + Juliet is cool curatorial vibe management; the logic of Moulin Rouge is excess; the logic of Marie Antoinette is angst and drift. The logic of A Knight’s Tale’s musical cues is very specifically middle-brow, classic rock radio, NFL stadium rock. (The movie is—kind of misleadingly—framed as a sports movie.) The film is sincere about these drops, but they’re meant, largely, to be noticed. They compose a coherent aesthetic, but, to layer on yet another anachronistic reference, that aesthetic is BOB FM. If there were to be Bowie, you’d have guessed “Heroes” or “Space Oddity” or maybe even “Rebel, Rebel.” “Golden Years” isn’t “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” but, for this film, it’s a comparatively deep cut.

What happens is this: Heath Ledger plays a squire masquerading as a knight named Ulrich. He catches the eye of a noble lady named Jocelyn (Sossamon) who invites him to the celebratory banquet after his first jousting tournament. Ulrich can’t dance, so there’s a fun montage about that, but then, when he arrives at the banquet, a rival knight puts him on the spot and asks him to teach everyone a dance of his native country. He starts to fumble, Jocelyn steps in, and the whole party commences to doing one of those highly formal, interlocked pinky finger, medieval dances. At some point, however, as the group starts to get comfortable, and as the chemistry between Ulrich and Jocelyn becomes more apparent, the lute music transitions into “Golden Years,” and everybody cuts loose. It happens, visually, in the screenshot at the top of this post. Sossamon does a shoulder roll and wafts her hand like she’s at The Bronze, and all of a sudden, something else is happening.

But the spark, in the “Golden Years” scene, isn’t from the anachronism. Once the sound fully fades in, and the dancers shake off the stilted choreography, the scene no longer derives its energy from incongruity. It’s a unique scene in the film—which is full of temporal winks like a blacksmith etching a Nike swoosh or Geoffrey Chaucer introducing a joust like it’s a pro wrestling match—because it’s wholly in its own moment, comparatively free from postmodern framing or irony. Bowie and Sossamon and Ledger—who was so surreally skilled at generating his own enveloping emotional ecosystems out of nothing—produce a feeling that’s out of time, neither historical nor contemporary.

Anthony Lane agrees with me. Unbelievably, Lane ends his posthumous remembrance of Bowie’s long, illustrious career in film with a parsing of his contribution to A Knight’s Tale. The “Golden Years” drop, he writes, is “the best and most honest use of anachronism that I know of. It summons the gold of our own years and sends it back in time to gild another age.” Good anachronism isn’t about making a scene or a song seem out of place; it’s about making scenes and songs reversible, multidirectional, placeless. Good anachronism makes all that sending and gilding seem right, seem like nothing at all.

Watching it in 2001, I can remember the thrill of hearing that song for the first time, but also the thrill of seeing Early Heath Ledger do Early Heath Ledger things. (10 Things I Hate About You—also streaming now, on Disney Plus—had already happened, but this was his first unquestioned lead.) The hair flip, the moment when you can see him lip sync “angel,” to acknowledge the music and to acknowledge us in the theater. I remember being appropriately bewitched by Sossamon’s Medieval Pixie Dream Girl and her preposterously long sleeves and her Technicolor hair explosion. The way the choreography keeps hurtling them past each other until their fingers catch and they’re tethered, in orbit. I remember seeing it, a few months before going away to college, beholding all this charm and movement and laughter and thinking that’s what’s next. As a kid, “Golden Years” and its promise of protection—nothing’s gonna touch you—feels like the annunciation of a dawning era. One day I’ll wear a green tunic, and she’ll match. One day, I’ll organically feel the feelings this song is designed to produce. All this jousting and dancing is ahead.

But now, and likely for Bowie in 1975, it feels like the annunciation of loss. Sossamon never became a star. Heath Ledger did, but we know what happened next. Watching this scene and seeing him float through the air, weightless, I think about how heavy I felt when my friend Adrian texted me to tell me he’d died. It hit me so hard because I really truly had no idea, until that moment, what this actor had meant to me. And, if I’m being honest, it was the living sanctity of this scene that I thought of, standing in the middle of Walnut Street Bridge. But nothing’s gonna touch you in these golden years, the Duke says. I was 25 when Heath Ledger died, having done all the dancing and felt all the feelings he promised. I was 33 when Bowie died, having heard the rest of his records, memorized their lines, and sung them to my infant daughter before putting her to bed in her crib. Right now, I’m exactly the same age Marie Antoinette was when they chopped her head off. Whop whop whop.

And this, friends, is the magic of cinema! You are always who you were whenever you see the “Golden Years” dance sequence or the hidden Chuck Taylors in Marie Antoinette or the Mercutio drag show in Romeo + Juliet for the first time. But because those scenes stay the same, they also contain the possibility of who you will be whenever you see them again. Maybe because they’re already unmoored in time, they accept this sort of attachment more readily. Heath Ledger and Shannyn Sossamon and David Bowie are forever in that scene; I am forever all the people I have been all the times I’ve seen it. Everybody’s anachronism. All that anticipation and all that disappointment and all those hand claps and interlocked fingers. Right now, for me, at this very moment, it’s almost unbearably moving to watch people dance at all.

[NB: In 2003, two years after A Knight’s Tale, Lars Von Trier released his neo-Brechtian historical misery buffet Dogville. Dogville ends with the jarringly bright sound cue of Bowie’s “Young Americans,” which then scores a montage of images of impoverished American scenes. Two historical films, two years apart, two mid-70s Bowie drops. Paul Bettany is in both movies. Lars Von Trier could take a lie detector test in front of me, swearing that he’s never even seen this movie, never even heard of Shannyn Sossamon, but I would never in a million years believe he didn’t get the idea from A Knight’s Tale. Tell the truth, Lars.]

Finally Started // I May Destroy You (HBO)

Remember that thing I said last week about shows doing genuinely new things?

Flagging // Sex Education, Season Two (Netflix)

I’m putting this in the “Flagging” category, not because we just stopped watching it, but because we actually stopped watching it a long time ago, forgot that we did, and then picked back up this week. It’s not my favorite show in the world, but I’m charmed by nearly everybody in it, and, while I understand some folks are puzzled to distraction by it, I, unsurprisingly, love the impossible hybrid 1990s/2020s stylistic temporality of this show.

Finally Finished // Perry Mason (HBO)

Like everybody else, I thought the show started unnecessarily slowly but picked up midway through. And I think the number and duration of times the show makes us look at an image of a dead baby is psychotic and inexcusable. It truly never stops. You think you’ve seen it for the last time, and then the show is like, “REMEMBER THIS?!” But, the Welsh King Matthew Rhys is the patron saint of this newsletter, so, I tentatively endorse it.

Recommendations //

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw did a considerably more thorough appreciation of the many charms of A Knight’s Tale than I did when it came back to Netflix earlier this month. “The whole film is seamlessly sincere.” Yep!

In addition to the Jaya Saxena piece I link to above, I highly recommend watching or rewatching Marie Antoinette and reading K. Austin Collins’ incredible work of criticism about it.

I’ve read this Philippa Snow piece on Too Hot to Handle and heart trouble so many times my sides hurt.

I don’t need to tell you, but, read Jane Hu on social media activism.

And read Lauren Michele Jackson on Seinfeld.

My friend Ted Mathys is a poet who wrote a book called Gold Cure that’s out now, and my friend Sarah Dowling is a poet who wrote a book called Entering Sappho that’s out now. They are very nice people and better than nice poets.

It’s from last year, but I think about this Soraya Roberts piece on climate change and what cultural criticism even means a lot. It’s only gotten more relevant, and, given the catastrophic changes in media since it was published—including for Roberts, who’s no longer at Longreads—even more poignant.

This week’s regional food item is: pork roll. Pork roll is a cylindrical processed meat product found almost exclusively in South Jersey and Philadelphia. If you were just looking at it sliced, you’d say it looks like Canadian Bacon, but you’d be nuts to continue that comparison once you taste it. It’s the greatest breakfast sandwich meat available. Sorry.

This week’s recipe is a cocktail and a salad, also from southeast PA. At Zahav, a restaurant in Old City Philadelphia, they make an Israeli salad. It’s mangoes, red onion (tossed separately in salt, olive oil, red wine vinegar, and sumac), parsley, mint, olive oil, lemon, and cucumber. The story from the cookbook is that they used to take the liquid that drained off of that and make it into a martini, but they “perfected” it by making a kind of pulverized tomato-cucumber water instead. I prefer the original way, and I like to substitute pineapple for mango. (I use frozen fruit that we have for smoothies and stuff.) You make the salad and let it sit in a colander over a bowl. Press it a bit. Then do basically a one-to-one of gin and the water that drips out. It’s salty and spicy and tastes a little like a dirty martini and a little like a Bloody Mary. Holy moly. If we ever get to have a dinner party again, I’m making you one of these.

I’ll stick with you, baby, for a thousand years,

Phil.