Sarah Slade revisits David Bowie Is, the documentary made about the 2013 V&A exhibition, which is showing in cinemas across the UK tonight.
In 2013 the V&A’s summer retrospective of David Bowie’s life and career was one of the fastest-selling art shows in town. Bowie was alive and still working, and the exhibition of his life looked at his 50-year career, covering his early influences, his collaborations and, since you can’t have a V&A exhibition without some schmatte, his costumes. Three years later, Bowie is dead, and the show (still touring the world) has become an epitaph to his magpie genius.
A curated exhibition is an appropriate way to remember David Bowie (and a million times better than singing Space Oddity with a giant spider crawling across your face – sorry Lady Gaga). The curators had full access to his archives and I’m not sure if he ever threw anything away. We get to see gig posters, costume sketches for his many teenage bands, storyboards, works in progress, paintings, books and performance films projected onto vast walls, like moving Bowie wallpaper. Here’s that 1972 Top of The Pops performance of Starman, when Bowie, clad in a quilted rainbow, puts his arm around Mick Ronson (in a silver-trimmed white jumpsuit – you don’t get many of those in Hull) as they sing the chorus together. There he is, hair dyed a sombre brown, singing Heroes. Here’s Kansai Yamamoto, designer of that black jumpsuit with the crazy trousers, talking about how he designed it for a woman. But here’s Bowie rocking it like a boss on the Aladdin Sane tour.
The film of the exhibition describes various states of Bowieness in a roughly chronological order. It starts in Beckenham with Hanif Kureshi recounting how his teachers used Bowie as an example of what happens to technical school kids who get too big for their boots. David Jones becomes David Bowie as a tribute to the American frontiersman, Jim Bowie. I’m not sure if Jim Bowie ever dyed his hair red and wore skin-tight knitted onesies, but the thought is there.
His film career, which ran in sort-of parallel to his musical journey, is dealt with fairly swiftly. There’s a bit of Nic Roeg, a smattering of not- very-good 80s movies, and Labyrinth. In between movies he kills off Ziggy Stardust, moves to LA, then Berlin, paints Iggy Pop and listens to lots of Kraftwerk with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti.
The exhibit tour is interspersed with vox pop interviews with gallery visitors and short pieces by the likes of Jarvis Cocker, describing how Bowie affected their lives. This is the key point of the exhibition: it doesn’t tell us much that isn’t already known, but the curators concentrate on how Bowie affected 20th and 21st century culture, not so much as a musician – even he would have admitted that he wasn’t the most technically proficient muso in the room – but as a curatorial, creative force. He gathered bits and pieces from books, paintings, music, performance art, fashion…whatever happened to be around, then reshaped it, mixed it with something else, and said, “Here, try this.” Whether it was the Turkish inflections of Lodger or drum and bass rhythms of Earthling, he wasn’t afraid to throw it into the mix.
Then there was the element of luck. There were hundreds of Bowies in the suburbs; clerking by day, playing in bands or working on fantastic creations in garden sheds by night, but very few of them had the drive, the self-motivation and the confidence to take their ambitions beyond the local pub circuit. Bowie served as a beacon of what could be achieved, for garden shedders and surburban smartarse kids who knew there was more to life than a nice house and a steady job with the council.
The film never lets up in its praise of Bowie which, eventually, is its principal weakness. The selectiveness over which collaborations to cover means that Angie Bowie is airbrushed from the picture, Nile Rodgers just about manages a mention and if you hadn’t lived through the 80s and spent your hard-earned cash on a Tin Machine album, you’d never know that he ever put a foot wrong. By focusing entirely on his successes, the exhibition creates a kind of Church of Bowie The Immaculate, which diminishes him a little as an artist. Bowie’s mistakes remind us that he wasn’t always right; that the creative process isn’t always successful. But the important thing, as every teacher now would say, is that he tried, and because he tried, we try too.
David Bowie Is screens across the UK tonight, Thursday July 14th. For a list of screenings visit davidbowiefilm.com.