Seu Jorge: Life Aquatic – A Tribute to Bowie

Music, Latin and world
Seu Jorge Life Aquatic

The Bowie-playing Brazilian from the Wes Anderson movie brings his poignant tribute to the Ziggy Stardust era to the Melbourne Recital Centre

Wes Anderson’s 2004 film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a comedy, but it's infused with wonder, sadness and longing. The story of a Jacques Cousteau-like oceanographic adventurer (played by Bill Murray) and his quest to make a film about the hunt for a tiger shark that devoured his longtime associate, it features actors such as Willem Dafoe and Noah Taylor as crew, Anjelica Huston as Zissou’s long-suffering wife, Cate Blanchett as a pregnant UK journalist who comes on the quest to write an article, and Owen Wilson as the estranged son that Zissou never knew he had. And there in the crew is Pelé dos Santos, played by Brazilian music star Seu Jorge, with his acoustic guitar, playing early David Bowie songs from his Hunky Dory/Ziggy Stardust glam rock era, adapted to a lilting bossa nova rhythm and sung in Portuguese.

Seu Jorge, who performs these classic songs including ‘Life on Mars?’ and ‘Rebel Rebel’ in Australia this month, tells Time Out that he was inspired to revive them as a tribute to Bowie, who died in the same week that his own father did in January 2016. “It’s just me and my guitar and David Bowie’s spirit [on stage],” he says. “I think these shows will touch a lot of people, the Bowie fans and the Wes Anderson fans. It’s very hard to think of one artist who has such loyalty of fans as Bowie – maybe Bob Marley. The songs are very hard to play alone, but when you get the atmosphere and the audience, everything is like a dream, and the spirit of Bowie arrives; it’s a beautiful moment.”

"Everything is like a dream, and the spirit of Bowie arrives; it’s a beautiful moment”

Jorge says he was not au fait with the David Bowie catalogue 15 years ago, when he got a call at home in Rio from Anderson inviting him to come to Italy for the film’s shoot and to adapt and record the songs. “He said, ‘I’m gonna send you the songs so you can figure it out, call me back.’ I called him back and said, ‘Are you sure about this man? Do you want me to kill these classics in Portuguese?’ He said, ‘I just want something different with this music.’”

That something is the quality of ‘saudade’, or melancholic nostalgia, that Seu Jorge’s voice and guitar bring to some of rock and roll’s most romantic material. Behind the glitter, Bowie was singing about death and transcendence in songs such as ‘Star Man’, ‘Five Years’, and ‘Space Oddity’, themes common to Anderson’s whimsical and surprisingly dark tale of underwater exploration, pirates and ad hoc families. Jorge did not expect an album of the songs to be released nor it to be the success it was, and he went on to perform them live at Coachella in 2006 and more recently in Bowie’s backyard, at London’s Royal Albert Hall, last year. “Had Seu Jorge not recorded my songs in Portuguese,” Bowie himself said, “I would never have heard this new level of beauty which he has imbued them with.”

Audiences can expect an affectionate tribute to the Wes Anderson universe in the shows: “It’s not Seu Jorge on the stage, it’s Pelé dos Santos from The Life Aquatic.” The musician has been happy to see a lot of audience members attending in Team Zissou’s signature red woollen caps. Shooting the film was a happy time for him, he says, despite the racism he experienced in Italy, and he made strong friendships among the cast members: he recalls jamming with Jeff Goldblum on hotel pianos. “Cate Blanchett – wow, she’s just incredible, it’s inspiring to play in a movie with her. She inspired my version of ‘Lady Stardust.’”

Jorge never did get to meet Bowie, though, which lends his tribute an extra layer of saudade. “I tried meeting him, and my contact said, ‘oh, he’s a little sick right now’ so I decided to give him privacy. And we lost Bowie and I missed the chance to meet him. But Wes Anderson confessed to me in Paris last year, ‘I don’t know if Bowie liked the movie, but I know he loved the album.”

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