Though this is one of David Bowie’s most popular videos and also features one of the best performances of his often underrated acting career, the story behind it is a sad one. Bowie wrote the song from the point of view of Terry Burns, his schizophrenic half-brother who once attempted suicide by jumping out of a window. Though that attempt failed, a few years later, Terry did succeed in escaping from the mental institution where he was being held. After escaping, Terry was hit by a train and killed. Much like Bowie’s previous song, All the Madmen, Jump They Say was inspired by Terry’s life and Bowie’s own attempts to understand the source of his brother’s mental illness.
This makes the video all the more poignant as Bowie plays a businessman who comes to suspect that his colleagues are plotting against him and, in order to escape from them, ends up throwing himself from the roof of an office building. Mark Romanek directs in such a way that it’s never clear whether Bowie’s character is correct to be paranoid or if it’s all in his mind. Romanek throws in visual references to other films that dealt with the themes of paranoia and conformity, including A Clockwork Orange, Alphaville, and The Trial. Romanek has subsequently gone from being an in-demand music video director to directing films such as One Hour Photo and Never Let Me Go.
When this video was released, Bowie was going through something of a career slump. Jump They Say was a bit of a comeback for him, reaching number 9 on the UK charts.