Film and TV

David Bowie Documentary Shows Artist's Vast Influence on Music, Fashion, Art

The new documentary film David Bowie is does not tackle the epic career of the legendary rock star, but rather takes you inside London's Victoria and Albert Museum's (V&A) exhibition, where more than 300 pieces of Bowie history are on display. Stories behind the extraordinary stage costumes, handwritten lyrics, sketches, and other artwork attempt to humanize the larger than life performer and expose the inspiration behind his otherworldly musical characters.

You won't see any new interviews with the 67-year-old performer. There are no insights to his sexuality or addictions. No mention of his work Klaus Nomi. Instead, the documentary takes place during the last day of V&A's exhibition before the show started a worldwide tour. It will arrive at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago on September 23, the same day the film will be shown at more than 100 theaters across the nation, including Phoenix's FilmBar.

The result is something that plays more like a Time-Life infomercial attempting to sell you on the importance of the presentation than a documentary about the man and the numerous personas he undertook. The exhibition curators, Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, narrate the more exciting parts of the exhibition as well as introduce those in the art world who inspired Bowie, such as legendary Japanese fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto, who created the infamous avant-garde dress Bowie wore during his Ziggy Stardust tour.

Broackes and Marsh also talk to Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker, who waxes poetic about seeing Bowie's handwritten lyrics and how his penmanship resembles that of a "14-year-old girl," which made him seem more human. Those who were in attendance at the museum that night get a chance to gush over their favorite Bowie memories and memorabilia. They're all there to sell you on the notion that Bowie was one of the most important figures in music, film, and fashion. What those behind the scenes of the film and exhibition don't seem to realize is that this isn't a new theory; it's been debated and discussed countless times before.

This isn't to say that you won't learn anything new about Bowie from viewing the film. The concept behind the Diamond Dogs album, which was initially to be a musical based on George Orwell's novel 1984, was much more elaborate than just a concept album. Halloween Jack was supposed to have a film revolving around him, and Bowie even started to storyboard the project. Even as Bowie's hold on the public started to wane in the '90s, every album and subsequent tour was carefully constructed by the man himself. The costumes, covers, and themes were as intricately created then as they are now. Even the cover art for 2013's The Next Day, which was a simple riff of the artwork for Bowie's Heroes album, was something that took a lot of time to conceive.

Both the exhibit and documentary show that much of this painstaking attention to detail originates from Bowie's beginnings in the bohemian scene in London's Soho area, where his background in performance grew out of mime culture. He realized it was easier for him to create a new character than to be himself, which seems readily apparent as he loses himself in starring roles in his early performance art films. Those who were introduced to Bowie as The Goblin King in the film Labyrinth can see how Jim Henson viewed Bowie not only as a star but as a collaborator, which is outlined in a letter on display, written to Bowie by the creator of the Muppets.

If you want to learn more about the man who made magic dance and jump, then consider this film to be the perfect primer. If you're already somewhat steeped in the legend of Bowie, your time might be better spent listening to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars maximum volume.

David Bowie is will be showing at FilmBar Tuesday September 23, 2014 at 7:30 p.m.

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Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil