Bowie is Documentary

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There were two pieces of Bowie memorabilia I brought with me my freshman year of college and my first time away from home. One was a white t-shirt with a silhouetted image of Bowie with his jacket slung over one shoulder and the other was a Black & White door poster of him in an air force flight suit. It looked like a promo shoot from his movie, The Man Who Fell to Earth. I saw it on WNET, my local PBS station the summer before. I also saw his Ziggy Stardust movie some time before on PBS.

I don’t have the shirt or the poster anymore. The shirt was washed to death after years of constant wear and the poster never made it past my freshman year. My fascination with Bowie has also worn. This doesn’t mean I stopped being a fan. I just stopped being as big of a fan. Labyrinth was the last Bowie project I got really excited about. I was a fan of The Dark Crystal and excited to see it’s follow up. I also heard Bowie wrote the songs and my brain misinterpreted it as Bowie wrote a musical. I was disappointed at the truth but not the movie. In fact, I just watched it recently with my kids.

I had a chance to see the Bowie Is film when it played in Manhattan for a one-night only event. The exhibit that inspired the film and rejuvenated my Bowie passions is touring but New York City is not one of its scheduled stops, so the film was my only opportunity for a glimpse at the highly praised Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition.

For the most part, I agree with the Hollywood Reporter’s review that the movie is “Less a proper film about David Bowie than a tie-in to a traveling exhibition organized by London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, David Bowie Is makes an adequate consolation for superfans who can’t afford to travel to one of the show’s host cities (it opens today at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art), but has the simultaneous effect of causing one to wonder when a serious documentarian will turn a lens on the former Thin White Duke.”

I disagree with the Reporter’s opinion that the filmmakers, Hamish Hamilton and Katy Mullan, stumbled “when trying to capture the feel of touring through the show, moving their camera through daffy tableaux in which people hold their poses in galleries as if caught in freeze-frame.” But I also had the benefit of listening to Hamilton speak about the film in a Q&A session with punk professor, Vivien Goldman, after the screening.

Given the restrictions placed on the filmmaker by the Victoria and Albert Museum, I thought going the complete opposite course (Hamilton originally wanted the actors to run through the exhibit) was clever solution. I was unable to stay for the complete Q&A session but what I was able to catch brought back memories of the Media Study courses I took on ethnographic film and documentary filmmaking. The biggest revelation for me was the documentary is not real. It’s a very manipulated (and manipulative) slice of real.

I remembered The Hunters and Nanook of the North. The latter in particular is credited with founding documentary cinema. It was the first full length feature documentary film. Early in the Bowie Is film, Victoria Broackes, one of the exhibit’s co-curators, retells a story from Bowie about how he would hang out in Soho, where the upcoming artists of London hung out, with a book he assumed that crowd would be impressed by hanging out of his coat pocket. The implication was that the books were initially fashion accessories to Bowie that he eventually read.”

I like Bowie because his creations are multidisciplinary (multi-sensory). A song is not just a song but part of a larger concept or transmedia story, a story that utilizes multiple media and devices in its telling and/or retelling. While I don’t agree with the Reporter’s comment wondering “when a serious documentarian will turn a lens on the former Thin White Duke,” I do believe that the film seems not to have made up its mind whether to document the exhibit or the exhibit’s subject, David Bowie.

Contrary to the Reporter, I felt the freeze frames and the responses to “Bowie is” added instead of detracted from the movie. However, I wanted more. Both curators, Victoria Broackes and Geoff Marsh, are interviewed in the film but their comments seemed perfunctory. I wanted something more, something deeper. If I couldn’t get that I wanted to know how the items in the exhibit were acquired. It might have been interesting to hear Geoff and Victoria talk about the objects they wanted but couldn’t get.

The Reporter mentions a story Kansai Yamamoto, the creator of Bowie’s famous striped Aladdin Sane bodysuit, tells about his first meeting with Bowie. The comedy is the designer’s insistence that the clothes of his that Bowie wears is “for ladies.” I would’ve liked a personal story like that from the curators. Or from the actors portraying exhibit visitors. Or if the stories were about the objects.

For example, included in the exhibit is a framed newspaper clipping that Bowie has kept of Little Richard. What are the curators’ stories about Little Richard? Are they familiar with the photo? While the objects help tell the story of David Bowie, it should not be forgotten that the objects have their own stories.

I liken documentaries to cover songs. They are different interpretations of the original. Pin Ups is one of my favorite Bowie albums though it does not contain any original material by him. The songs are his interpretations of existing songs. Bowie Is is a good cover song but not my favorite version of the original.

Here are some of my favorite Bowie covers so far:

Girl in a Coma, “As the World Falls Down”

Nirvana, “Man Who Sold the World”

Bauhaus, “Ziggy Stardust”

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