In Wes Anderson’s typically eccentric film “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004), a young Portuguese member of Zissou’s crew can be seen at various points strumming his guitar to classic David Bowie songs sung in his native language. Even if the audience didn’t know Portuguese, it was easy to tell that each time he appeared was a major emotional turning point of the story.
The crew member Pelé dos Santos was played by Seu Jorge, and thirteen years later his live tribute in Indianapolis to both David Bowie and to his part in Wes Anderson’s film captured much of the same spirit. Adorned in his iconic light-blue polo and bright red beanie from the film, the entire performance was both a nostalgic tribute and an emotional journey.
The entirety of the show was just Jorge and his guitar, accompanied by various embellishments to each song like projections of Bowie, the film and arrays of spotlights. However, it takes a commanding presence to keep an audience enraptured for 90-plus minutes with only a guitar and a singing voice. Jorge’s sonorous rich singing and lively, emotional guitar picking and strumming was all that was needed to make the night memorable.
The journey itself was peppered with Jorge’s anecdotes both about making the film and his relationship to Bowie’s music. “I was a black guy growing up in Brazil,” he jokes, when remembering Wes Anderson’s question about if he knew any Bowie songs. “Of course, I hadn’t heard any. I only knew about two, including “Let’s Dance,” a great song.”
The difference of Jorge’s detachment compared to perhaps a British or American teenager’s growing up with Bowie’s music is essential in understanding how much of an impact he has as an interpreter of Bowie’s songs.
Bowie even had his own praise of the singer: “Had Seu Jorge not recorded my songs in Portuguese I would never have heard this new level of beauty which he has imbued them with.”
It didn’t matter what song was being performed, no matter if it was sung in Portuguese; the audience knew exactly what it was about. In each song, the inherent beauty and emotion of the composition was brought to the forefront, whether it was the playfulness of “Oh! You Pretty Things,” the tragic triumph of the opener “Ziggy Stardust” or the sense of oncoming romantic doom in “Five Years.” The disconnect between Bowie’s glam and Jorge’s native music was most apparent in the standout of the night, a bossa nova take on “Rebel Rebel,” turning it into a most affecting and gentle love song.
Overall, the night was proof that language is no barrier in having music bring people together. The encore ended with “Let’s Dance” blasting over the P.A. system, followed by Seu Jorge dancing energetically off the stage, encouraging the audience to do the same. It reiterated not only the celebratory power of music, but the fullness of life and joy inherent in both “The Life Aquatic” and the songs of David Bowie.