“This Is Not America”: David Bowie’s somber Reagan-era movie theme was one of the greatest protest songs ever

By on January 30, 2017

“A little piece of you, the little peace in me…will die…” sings David Bowie in “This Is Not America,” the theme song for John Schlesinger’s 1985 Cold War spy film The Falcon and the Snowman.

The video for the song, constructed from scenes from the movie, can be seen in our “New Film and Video” episode, which originally aired on “Night Flight” on April 12, 1985, just a few months after the movie opened in U.S. theaters (and President Ronald Reagan had been elected to his second term, too).

It’s streaming for our subscribers on our Night Flight Plus channel.


On Tuesday, November 6, 1984, President Ronald Reagan won a 49-state electoral college victory in his campaign for a second term, ushering in four more years of a president’s administration which was alienating at least half of the nation’s voters (TV stations across the country — much like our current president has been doing — kept calling it a “historic landslide.”)

Around that same time, David Bowie recorded his vocals for “This Is Not America,” a song that he and the film’s soundtrack composer, fusion jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, had written for Schlesinger’s 1985 film The Falcon and the Snowman.

The film itself — a somber anomaly coming in 1985, at the height of the Reagan years, when the big hits were blockbusters like Back to the Future, The Goonies, and Rocky IV — was loosely based on a work of non-fiction, Robert Lindsey’s 1979 book, The Falcon and the Snowman: A True Story of Friendship and Espionage, (Simon and Schuster), about two young Americans of privilege, money and ambition who end up selling out their country, ruining their families and destroying their lives.

Timothy Hutton plays a low-level C.I.A. contractor named Christopher Boyce — nicknamed “the Falcon” because of his expertise in falconry — who uncovers documents that prove the C.I.A. is secretly coercing foreign governments (including helping to cause the downfall Australia’s Labor Party government in 1975).

He confides in his conniving, fast-talking boyhood friend, Andrew Daulton Lee (Sean Penn, in one of his best roles ever), who is a reckless drug dealer and addict — sometimes called “the Snowman,” a reference to his cocaine sales — in addition to being a minor smuggler, and convinces him to sell these classified secrets to the Soviets.

Lee boldly cuts a deal with the KGB, meeting with agents in Mexico, but soon the stakes spin out of control as the Soviets up the ante, and Lee descends further into drug abuse, and the C.I.A. plot to take the two informants down.

Boyce and Lee were both arrested on espionage and treason charges in 1977, and Lindsey had covered their trials for the San Jose Mercury-News, later arranging his courtroom notes and dispatches, interviews with the principals, and field research for the book, which arrived two years after Boyce and Lee were both sent to prison.

The film was produced by Hemdale, an independent company who were enjoying a hot streak at the time, having already produced The Terminator (1984) and after Falcon would enjoy a hot streak, releasing a spate of great 80s films, like At Close Range (1986), Salvador (1986), Hoosiers (1986), Platoon (1986), and River’s Edge (1987), which we told you about here.

“This Is Not America” takes its name from the scene in the film where Penn’s Lee character is arrested and beaten by Mexican police in Mexico City, where he loudly exclaims, “I am an American citizen!,” implying his perceived entitlements and rights, to which a policeman replies, “This is not America.”

The original meaning in the movie seems to be about how other nations don’t get to enjoy the freedoms that we Americans do, freedoms and rights that get taken for granted until they’re taken away from us (which we have to say, seems to be happening every day now in 2017).

Bowie had been telling rock journalists as early as September 1984 that he was going to be doing the theme song for Falcon, later that year.

On September 29, 1984, Bowie — promoting his then new EMI album Tonight — did just one “official” interview, with New Musical Express‘s Charles Shaar Murray, telling him:

“It’s the story of two young American guys who sell secrets to the Russians. It’s Tim Hutton and Sean Penn giving the performances of their lives, but I don’t know how it will be received in the States given the current political climate. It’s very objective, though one feels great sympathy for the two boys. It’s a magnificent piece of filmaking, the best Schlesinger film I’ve seen in years.”

You can read the interview in Bowie on Bowie: Interviews and Encounters with David Bowie by Sean Egan.

At the time, it was still pretty novel that Bowie would write a lyric for another artist’s song — cleverly using the homophone rhymes of “piece” and “peace” in the song’s first line — let along record his vocals over a previously recorded backing track, but during the 1980s, especially, he was opening himself up to the idea of doing a lot of different types of things, including recording with Metheny’s jazz fusion quartet.

On January 11, 2016 — the day after Bowie died, which was three days after his 69th birthday — guitarist Pat Metheny wrote about the experience of recording the track with Bowie:

“Working with David Bowie on ‘This Is Not America’ was an incredible experience. I had written the song as the main theme for the score for The Falcon and the Snowman. After traveling to Mexico City where the filming was taking place and watching Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton do a few scenes, I went back to my room and the whole piece came very quickly.

Later while in London recording the score, John Schlesinger, the director of the film, suggested a collaboration with David Bowie for a version of the song to go over the final credits. David came to a screening of the film and I sat near him as he saw the picture for the first time. He had a yellow legal pad on his lap and was writing constantly. At the end of the film, he had a list of maybe 30 (brilliant) song titles that he had thought of while watching. One of them was ‘This Is Not America,’ a line from the film.”

It’s quite likely that EMI Records — who were distributing the official soundtrack to the film — also thought the pairing up the two artists, who might not have crossed paths otherwise, was a great idea. Metheny was also recording the soundtrack in London, in September ’84, so perhaps it was easy enough for them to meet for a screening of the film.

Metheny says that a month after the screening, he and his band traveled to Montreux, Switzerland, to join Bowie in his studio to record the single.

Bowie had taken Metheny’s original demo, and “added an additional drum machine part and while keeping the form and big chunks of the original melody, added an additional vocal line on top of the ‘A’ section to which he had written those haunting and evocative lyrics.”

Metheny says, “To me his words make ‘This is Not America’ one of the greatest protest songs ever.” (Read more here).

Metheny had said at the time that he intended the track to be mainstream, telling Billboard it was the first time the group really committed itself to doing a real pop record, one which features wonderfully 80s-sounding synths, a mournful French horn, and a glorious key change, not to mention stunning octave leaps from Bowie, in addition to girl group-ish “sha la la la la’s.”

Many think it’s one of Bowie’s finest vocals from the Eighties.

The single “This Is Not America” — timed for release by EMI in conjunction with the movie’s theatrical release in January 1985 — would give Bowie and Metheny a radio hit all across Western Europe (the Dutch and Germans especially loved it, soaring to #1 in Holland — and it also charted in the Top Forty in both America (#32) and the U.K. (#14).

The song would then be forgotten for a time, until it was revived by Bowie in 2000 for one of his BBC appearances. It also appears on a handful of Bowie “Best Of” releases (from Russia, Bulgaria and other countries), and has been included on a number of film soundtracks, in addition to being re-recorded by a number of artists (in 2001, P. Diddy sampled the track for”American Dream,” his disillusioned contribution to the Training Day soundtrack).

Falcon would turn out to be one of the Academy-Award-winning director’s last major films — he died on July 25, 2003 — although he directed a half-dozen additional under-achieving and mostly forgettable features after Falcon, including The Believers (1987), Madame Sousatzka (1988), Pacific Heights (1990), The Innocent (1993), Eye for an Eye (1996) and the Madonna-starring straight-gay comedy, The Next Big Thing (2000).

The London-born Schlesinger is better known for the films he did in the 1960s, including a few classics of the British so-called “Kitchen Sink” era: A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar and Darling which earned him his first Academy Award nod for Best Direction.

His first American film, 1969’s Midnight Cowboy — for which he won the Best Director Oscar — was an international smash, and he would also win acclaim for 1971’s Sunday Bloody Sunday too (another Best Director nomination too), but his other 1970s and 80s-era films failed to follow up on the promise of his earlier work.

The Falcon and the Snowman was a moderate box-office success, earning $17 million in ticket sales on a budget of $7 million, and critics gave Schlesinger’s Falcon generally positive reviews.

Variety said that Hutton and Penn delivered “superb performances,” while the New York Times said it was “scathing, arresting” true-story spy thriller.

Roger Ebert’s January 25, 1985 review, in particular — which gave the film a perfect four-star rating — summed it up quite nicely:

“One of the many strengths of The Falcon and the Snowman is that it succeeds, in an admirably matter-of-fact way, in showing us exactly how these two young men got in way over their heads. This is a movie about spies, but it is not a thriller in any routine sense of the word. It’s just the meticulously observant record of how naiveté, inexperience, misplaced idealism and greed led to one of the most peculiar cases of treason in American history.”

The Falcon and the Snowman also gained some additional notoriety when, in 1986, during a showing of the movie on HBO, a satellite broadcast operator calling himself Captain Midnight jammed HBO’s scrambled satellite signal (we wrote about that here).

On October 10, 1984 — just six months before the January 25, 1985 premiere of The Falcon and the Snowman, directed by Schlesinger from a screenplay by Steven Zaillian — another mainstream U.S. film had opened in theaters across the country, the depressing dystopian futuristic drama 1984, starring the late great actor John Hurt (who died on Friday, January 27, 2017).

That movie, of course, had been adapted from George Orwell’s 1948 novel of the same name — written and published during a time of extreme austerity in England — about a totalitarian regime with a blind, blatant disregard for truth.

You may have heard recently that Orwell’s book is currently residing atop Amazon’s best-seller list in the U.S., thanks, no doubt, in part to our current president and his administration’s predilection to also use Orwellian terms “newspeak,” or perhaps “doublespeak” (“war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength”), which we guess we’re now supposed to be calling “alternative facts.”

Orwell’s novel also predicted a small group of individuals would seize power and then impose its will on the rest of the country in a conspiratorial replica of fascist/Stalinist methods.

Ten years earlier, David Bowie had even had written songs for a musical that he’d wanted into a theatrical production of 1984, until Orwell’s estate denied him the rights (he then turned his original idea into what became his Diamond Dogs album, which was released in June ’74.

In 1987, just two years after Schlesinger’s film and David Bowie’s song were both released, Chilean-born New York City-based artist Alfredo Jaar’s electronic billboard, A Logo for America, 1987/2014, was first displayed in Times Square, showing “This is Not America” in a 45-second message. You can watch it here.

Jaar — whose art often deals with immigration — created his billboard after a bloody period of U.S. interventions in the Americas as a way to point out that Americans living in North America often forget that the entire continent is called America.

After arriving in the U.S., Jaar would hear people referring to themselves as “Americans,” or saying “God Bless America,” but he says he was surprised to learn that they meant only their own country, the United States of America.

His billboard, then, was meant to point out that the citizens of his country, Chile — in addition to those of Canada, Brazil, Costa Rica, Argentina, etc. — were also “Americanos,” and to a larger extent, to point out that we’re all citizens of the world and should be working together instead of always trying to put up walls and divide us from each other.

Jaar’s A Logo for America was remounted in Times Square again, in 2014, and in 2016, between June and September, it appeared in London, where it was emblazoned across the screens of Piccadilly Circus.

At the time, months before Donald Trump was elected the president of the United States, Jaar said: “Each [presidential] candidate has a different idea about what the country is. It isn’t about language any more; it’s about the meaning of America. Millions of people are being expelled. Donald Trump is just the tip of the iceberg.”

“What’s happening in the U.S. is terrifying,” he continued. “The system is rigged; politics have failed us tremendously. We all thought Britain wouldn’t leave the EU, but look what happened here. Trump is a very real threat.”

Watch Night Flight’s April 1985 “New Film and Video” episode — which spotlights great Eighties soundtrack tie-in videos from movies like Beverly Hills Cop, Porky’s Revenge, The Last Dragon and a rarely seen video promoting Amadeus — now streaming for our subscribers on our Night Flight Plus channel.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.