Friday, 24 May 2013

Why You Mustn't Miss David Bowie - Five Years on BBC2 on 25 May

On the day that YouTube reinstated the blocked video for David Bowie’s latest single, I was at the Victoria & Albert Museum watching a remarkable new feature-length documentary on David Bowie to be screened on BBC2 this weekend.  Sitting amongst such vintage hacks as NME’s Charles Shaar Murray and Michael Watts and esteemed directors like Nicolas Roeg and video guru David Mallet, I assumed I’d see yet another profile of Bowie’s 50 years in music marking 30 years since The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and I thought I’d seen it all before.  

But producer/director Francis Whately’s David Bowie – Five Years is an insightful, focused and often amusing documentary showing a surprising amount of unseen footage, with fresh, entertaining commentary by the people who were at the centre of crucial creations across different Bowie epochs.  Whately chose to focus on five significant years in Bowie’s career: 1971/72, 74/75, 76/77, 79/80, 82/83. When introducing the film, he said that many people would argue that there were more important years that he should have chosen, to which he responded that they were welcome to make their own films.  They surely wouldn’t be as intriguing or surprising. This was bursting with ‘imagine that!’ moments, with remarkable, newly discovered archive footage, brilliant insight from key players, truly imaginative editing, stunning colours that pop off the screen and, of course, sensational sound.  

The sound matters greatly as the film is bursting with excellent Bowie music, and not just the usual hits. You watch as Bowie painstakingly constructs compositions, for instance, teaching a young Luther Vandross and other backing singers precisely how he wants his soulful song “Right” from Young Americans to be arranged.  Cuddly guitarist Carlos Alomar, singer Ava Cherry, and Alomar’s wife, the ageless Robin Clark (The Voice on Simple Minds hits like “Alive and Kicking”) marvel at his method, how he would coach them until they understood the puzzle he had pieced together.

The film is full of craftsmen marvelling at Bowie’s genius for this craft.  Rick Wakeman, who played piano on Life on Mars, talks us through Bowie’s unexpected chord change.  He seems charmed with the piece as he plays it for the first time in 40 years, and I am moved by the beauty of a piano piece that I might attribute to an 18th century composer if I heard It on Classic FM.  Even Wakeman stops and stares at the keys with admiration before pronouncing the song a piano player’s dream. ‘I must go home and learn it.’ 
With Life on Mars, we delight in the privilege of seeing Bowie’s façade slip for a moment with a grimace as flubs the lip sync for a video of the song. It’s jolting as the convincing performance sucks the viewer into believing in the painted otherworldly creature recounting this alienating, frightening tale, but he suddenly drops that mask with a sneer at his human error. In another scene, we see him painting on the mask before his assistant helps him step into his freaky one-legged onesie.  In a later photo shoot of quite a different look, we watch him pretending to rock out like Gene Vincent like any boy with a toy guitar.

There are plenty of reminders that Bowie was all about image even before he lived up to it—or before most of us knew that he lived up to it. We see Bowie on stage rocking a version of “Suffragette City” fit for a stadium,  then a close-up  of a girl up front screaming hysterically at the rock god before her. But when the camera angle changes, you realise there are only three people in the audience, though at least they are dancing.  The screaming fan is his wife Angie, perhaps trying to force feed her feigned hysteria to the world so it comes to accept his icon status.  We catch on eventually,   and meanwhile Bowie delivers performances fit for the screaming masses, though crucially he has the sense always to leave them wanting more.
We hear from numerous collaborators, even Robert Fripp, who Whately pointed out rarely gave interviews but was apparently so calmed by the researcher who interviewed him that he later braved an appearance on All Star Mr and Mrs with wife Toyah Wilcox. Sitting quietly, looking every bit the tie-wearing accountant he once was (and rather like actor/producer Bob Balaban), his quirky use of colourful language is given more impact as it emerges from such a deceptively prim looking character. 

The difference between pop guitar and rock guitar, he explains, is that “You might get f**d”. Pause. “Can you put that or should I express it in alternative terminology?” As Bowie explains the thinking behind the lemming dance in the “Fashion” video, Fripp dryly mocks its lyrics. He also declares that anyone who plays “Beauty and the Beastgets erections, making porn of the clip that follows of Alomar beaming with his eyes closed as plays it. 

Of course, that’s nothing compared to the long scene with Mick Ronson on stage performing “Moonage Daydream” with Bowie miming acts that make me want to avert my eyes even though I’m over 18. That must have been even more shocking at the time, but Bowie was never shy…. despite a young Spitting Image-like Janet Street-Porter demanding (in an ‘I worship you so let me help you deal with that issue’ way) that he admit to being shy, which he sweetly and patiently dismisses before calmly pointing out that he had a show to do.  He strolls straight onto the stage and stands in darkness in front of a roaring crowd as the band strikes up “Heroes”; the excitement is tangible, and I want to be there.  He has become the rock god Angie was screaming about.  More than three people are there now.    
Co-producer Tony Visconti tells us of an extra contribution he made to Heroes, as the lyric about kissing by the wall and guns was written after Bowie saw him and singer Antonia Maas snogging by the Berlin wall, which at the time was lined with armed East German soldiers (where, weirdly, we see a clip of the wall with what looks like Brian Eno’s cat nearby, but more on that later). Visconti tells us how he was brought on board by appealing to Eno and Bowie’s love of new gadgets (Bowie even bringing in some demos at one stage on a newfangled Walkman thingie), as Visconti told them he had a new thing called the Harmoniser, which “f**cks with the fabric of time” like Science Fiction.  We hear Bowie praise Eno’s expert use of three takes of Fripp’s emotive guitar to give “Heroes” its amazing sound, when it could have turned into a mess.

Heroes is the second album of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, after the experimental and less adored Low.  Brian Eno,  with a pained look behind his eyes, tells us that some critics who wrote about Low really needed to get a proper job.  Cut to a shot of Charles Shaar Murray, a veteran music journalist who I always think looks like a melting Ian Dury, reading a scathing review from a faded old broadsheet NME: ‘’It stinks of artfully counterfeited spiritual defeated futility….We’re low enough already, David. Give us a high, or else just swap tapes with Eno by post….’ He turns to the camera with a mischievously defiant smile. ‘Yeah, that’s what I wrote’. 
The presence of the likes of Murray in the film, never mind in the room with us, ensured that this was no Bowie gush fest.  In fact, although several people in the film marvel over Bowie’s genius, it was generally bemused collaborators who had been amazed by his unusual way of constructing an arrangement and his focused method for delivering his vision.  Musicians, producers, a couple of useful cultural historians adding context to Bowie’s choices and fame—the only people given a voice in this film have something insightful to offer us, usually observed first hand.  Whately, clearly a fan himself, wasted no time on a the Channel 4 style of retrospective full of unknown talking heads too young to remember the subject at hand, whose view we care nothing about.  These contributors all have something to say that we want to hear.

The Modern Bowie is not actually one of the talking heads, but he is omnipresent. We observe him through enlightening clips while quotes are artistically draped over the screen. His voice leads us through it all, sometimes with the proliferation of promotional soundbytes Bowie designed himself over years of spouting wisdom and philosophies, sometimes sharing brutal feelings such as when he was ‘psychically damaged’, coming close several times to overdosing. The film is effectively narrated by Bowie, linking the gripping interviews from people who matter as they explain in layman’s terms how his masterpieces—and misses—were created.

Mind you, not everything Bowie and his producers tried worked.  When discussing Brian Eno’s methods in the studio when working on Low, drummer Dennis Davis wearily conveys his resistance when Eno brought a blackboard into the studio as though they were in elementary school.  Carlos  Alomar, wonderfully frank, fun and someone you wish you were buddies with, tells the same story through bubbly smiles as he recalls having to play random chords as Eno pointed to them on the blackboard, before finally saying, ‘Dude, this isn’t working for me, man.’  With his optimist’s spin, he concedes that the unusual technique took him out of his comfort zone and taught him to see things from a different point of view.  ‘I didn’t like that point of view,’ he adds ‘but when I came back, I was fresh.’
Eno admits that he didn’t understand how good musicians worked since he wasn’t a musician himself in that sense.  That follows an art-house style would-be outtake that’s delightfully kept in, where Eno is seen to shoo his gorgeous cat up a splendid spiral staircase presumably to avoid any distractions or continuity issues during the interview.  Eno is sufficiently interesting that you still listen to him when his cat sneaks back into the shot, and it’s fun to play a sort of Where’s Wally called Where’s Eno’s Cat, even in gritty landscapes as an identical cat is spotted by the Berlin Wall. (Why did Eno shoo the cat with sweeping gestures rather than pick it up and move it, I wonder, imagining that the adorable Persian fluffball is actually vicious like the Python Holy Grail cave rabbit.)

Around this period, we hear Bowie speaking of freedom after downsizing to a wardrobe of just jeans and checked shirts (I gladly missed his bluegrass lumberjack phase).  He turned to David Mallett to create his music videos, although Bowie often storyboarded them himself—and we see him drawing them.  Mallet is a fan of checked shirts himself, appearing in a flannel plaid shirt in the film as well as in the audience, wearing it under a jacket as though it were a Brooks Brothers pinstripe.  It makes me think that if I were truly creative, I would have such a gimmick, and maybe my conservative dress is why I’m not yet a creative success.
Mallet, a video guru in those early days of MTV, was also a producer/originator of The Kenny Everett Video Show, on which Bowie and numerous other impressive guests appeared.  He talks about the “Space Oddity” video being cobbled together quickly [I’m also a big fan of Cmdr Chris Hadfield’s genuine Space Oddity video: ].  He talks of Bowie wanting to be on a beach with a clown and a digger on the “Ashes to Ashes” video, which includes a cast of Blitz club regulars like Steve Strange and Boy George, so he sees Bowie as a precursor to the Modern Romantic movement. Watching Bowie’s skill on the storyboard for what he thought was one of his better songs demonstrates that he is an all-round artist not just clever at creating music, which is perhaps why he disliked being limited by the ‘rock star’ tag, and why he carefully honed various looks and personas.  An artist—a creator, a writer, an actor—is all about creating rounded characters.

He is, of course, an actor as well, more than I realised.  I knew he often seemed to linger in the background of films as a vampire and flitted about the disappointing Absolute Beginners,  and I had hazy memories of seeing the Man Who Fell To Earth on late night Cinemax as a young child.  I was surprised to learn that he played the title role on Broadway in The Elephant Man in 1979.  Better yet, the film shows long clips of him on stage in that role, twisting his body in a warped way to convey the essence of the character without prosthetics. His Joseph Merrick has romantic views about Shakespeare, and we hear from Jack Hofsiss, whose direction of the play won him a Tony, the youngest director to have done so then.  Having later injured his spinal cord in a diving accident, he speaks in the film through a damaged voice, full of praise for Bowie the Actor.
I was seated behind the director of the Man Who Fell to Earth (along with amazing suspense classic Don’t Look Now), Nicolas Roeg. Boldly bearing scarves as one expects a director to, I watched two visions of him in the polka dot scarf before me, watching himself with clasped hands and no visible reaction.  The on-screen Roeg speaks of seeing in Bowie a man who wasn’t frightened to ruin his image, whom he spotted in Alan Yentob’s 1974 BBC documentary Cracked Actor when it was time to cast the lead alien. We see a clip from that documentary, with Bowie in the back of a limo putting in an Aretha Franklin eight-track tape and singing “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman” before spouting philosophy about the fly in his milk that he proceeds to drink.  Bowie’s Earth co-star, the now 65-year-old Candy Clark, says he looked naturally like someone from another planet so few changes needed to be made.  “He’s wrong when he says he’s expressionless” she says in praise of his acting skills.

Dick Cavett concludes that Bowie is an actor in character when he appears on his show in America, watching the tie-wearing pink-haired Bowie paw at the floor with his cane, a man he had been warned might  just bite his neck.  Bowie was rather scarier perhaps than Barbra Streisand, Maria Muldaur or similar pop stars of the day, but he delivered a fantastic “Young Americans” before covering The Flares’ “Footstompin”, which sounded oddly familiar. We learn how Bowie took Alomar’s infectious guitar riff on the latter and transformed it into “Fame” by cutting the song up into a blues format.  Bowie explains that co-writer John Lennon came to that session and joined in.  “Lennon sang ‘aim’ and I put an ‘F’ in front of it”.   Fimagine that. 
Astonishingly, we also see Bowie performing on Soul Train, a show WASPs like me never watched as it was seen as “the black American Bandstand”, with shows beginning with guests unscrambling letters to spell a notable figure in African American history. So why would Bowie be on it?  The clue must be in the name.  Yet the next clip we see has Bowie talking about how he was influenced by Kraftwerk, and we move away from soul to Station to Station. The man journeyed through more genres than I remembered.

On the other side of the pond, we see part of a supremely awkward Russell Harty interview via a satellite link (as Bowie is “in retirement” from the pop world in 1975), where Bowie comes across as the smoother professional. Harty blunders through the name of the song so that Bowie has to introduce it himself (pronouncing his own name to rhyme with “Joey”, incidentally).  He  also patiently corrects Harty when he introduces his film as ‘The Man who Came to Earth.’  [We don’t see the whole slow sticky exchange, during which Harty suggests that Bowie may have no audience to come back to because everyone in England now worshiped the Bay City Rollers, and why come back if he’s not that good a musician? It’s on YouTube . Maybe this is the real reason Grace Jones smacked Harty in the face years later.]
From the clip we see of Bowie arriving back in London at Victoria station surrounded by adoring crowds as though he were the Queen, Bowie needn’t have worried.   We see him develop in the film from the captivating glam rock figure in those embarrassingly awful one-legged knitted onesies (a close-up of his crotch shows that crochet does not flatter) to the breathtakingly glamorous blonde be-suited Let’s Dance era MTV God.  I recall that it was that persona that made me snatch up tickets when he came to my college town, only to be subjected to the dire Glass Spider tour with no hits until the very end, long after most people had given up and left despite Peter Frampton’s presence on guitar. The mood was not helped by Bowie pretending to pull a local girl onto the stage who danced far too well because, it transpired, she was Toni Basil.  But this film reminds me that Bowie is fascinating to watch and has incredible presence, something that should have been indelibly etched on my brain. 

This highly successful Let’s Dance era Bowie, who we know with our hindsight deserves the EMI party we see thrown for him at Claridges, follows the unusual step of hiring producer Nile Rodgers (Chic, Sister Sledge), who met him when Billy Idol pointed out Bowie sitting alone in a club.  Bowie wanted hits, and Rodgers was a hitmaker.   Rodgers refers to the ominous folk overtones of Bowie’s 12-string guitar (with only six strings) before he found that Bowie was jazzy and cool. But he had
concerns.  “If I don’t make a record that makes people want to dance, and we call the song Let’s Dance,  I’m gonna have to trade in my black union card.” He plays the intro he developed for “China Girl” and tells of his relief when Bowie recognised its comedic value (which had been lost on philistine me), and with these videos, MTV gave his career another life.  We’re reminded how stunningly beautiful Bowie looked then, once his teeth eventually become as slick as the rest of him. In his own words, Bowie suddenly wasn’t a cult artist anymore; he was playing stadiums.

It’s a long way from the period at the start of the film, when young Bowie was desperate to make an impression on a bored, wigless Andy Warhol, who does not welcome Bowie into his enclave after having hurt him by saying that Bowie’s tribute song to him was the worst thing he had ever heard. After long shots of Bowie looking like a child longing to join in the game, we are treated to a bewilderingly thin Bowie miming his own disembowelment, almost too graphically, before (miming) ripping his heart out and setting it free.  And following his heart, continuing to find his own way worked out rather well for him.

Francis Whately clearly adored crafting a film about a subject he was evidently passionate about, after meeting Bowie in 2001 when he approached several of his heroes in search of a presenter for a show about sculpture, and the first response was a phone call from Bowie.  Like Bowie, he surrounds himself with the very best talents, resulting in an outstandingly edited, aesthetically arresting and absorbing film with eye-popping colour, which uses clever devices throughout but happily shuns the inexplicably trendy irritating gimmicks of showing close-ups of speakers’ nostrils filmed by a drunken gibbon on skates.  This film artfully focuses without distractions on the world of Bowie during these five years, naturally playing plenty of music  through gorgeous sound. It reminds you of the joy to be had by playing those old Bowie records that you lost touch with or thought you were bored of, and you may want to explore the tracks you previously neglected. This is not just a rehash of everything you know. This is special.  Don’t miss it.
Afterwards, at the V&A, just like in the old days at the pictures, everyone applauded the superb film.  Some of us retired to a pub, where Charles Shaar Murray berated a BBC production coordinator for saying “Jay-Zed”, explaining “You wouldn’t say Zed Zed Top!” and Bowie’s PR disagreed with the genius behind the film’s sound mastering, Patrick Cleasby, about which was Morrissey’s best solo album.  There, I learned that the international version of this priceless film will have to be cut substantially in length, which seems a crime.  So acknowledge your privilege in seeing the Director’s Cut while you can…..and for free.

David Bowie – Five Years will be shown on BBC2 at 9.20pm on Saturday, 25th May 2013.
The film will be followed at 10.50pm by a showing of Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. The ‘David Bowie Is’ exhibition, featuring handwritten lyrics, original costumes, videos, set designs and Bowie’s musical instruments, continues at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 11 August 2013.


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