Sunday, June 02, 2013


I just managed to catch David Bowie: Five Years before it disappeared from iPlayer, and I'm certainly glad and relieve to have done so.

A collage of archive footage, out-takes and interviews with collaborators together with the odd comment from the man himself (not recent, mind - he's shunned interviews since his comeback), Francis Whately's film focused on five separate years rather than a period of five consecutive years - a wise choice in that it helped to emphasise the regular fundamental shifts in Bowie's perspective and interests, and the personas and albums they inspired.

What was clear was that Bowie's career has been characterised by an extraordinary restlessness. He's never allowed himself to fall into a comfortable furrow or to rest on his laurels, flitting from style to style between albums. Musically, that meant a maverick and daredevil appropriation of everything from rock 'n' roll (Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars) to soul (Young Americans), Krautrock (Station To Station), ambient electronica (Low) and funk (Scary Monsters and Let's Dance) - not cynical exploitation, as it was always borne from genuine passion rather than commercial imperatives. Part of his skill in this respect was to draw astutely upon the input and talents of a tremendous ensemble supporting cast, most of whom contributed their thoughts to the film: Mick Ronson, Robert Fripp, Tony Visconti, Brian Eno, Nile Rodgers.

But - as all those talking heads and more (John Harris, Charles Shaar Murray, even Camille Paglia) were at pains to suggest - it was never just about the music with Bowie; on the contrary, the accompanying visual presentation was equally if not more important. He proved himself to be self-styled in a very literal sense, a consummate shapeshifter and master of endless reinvention, changing identity with such regularity and complete abandon that it was never clear what the "real" David Bowie might be like.

Torygraph critic Michael Deacon has claimed (rightly) that the film's focus was on celebration rather than investigation, which meant that it approached the status of hagiography, with precious little acknowledgement of Bowie's not infrequent missteps. But, for someone so clearly prepared to throw caution to the wind and take risks time and again, it's inevitable that there would be some wrong turns along the way.

Though the tone was generally celebratory, I must admit to being left feeling slightly depressed in one respect. Bowie was a gender-bending and frequently avant-garde pioneer who nevertheless gained significant popularity, which had me pondering where today's Bowies are. Is such broad crossover appeal a thing of the past, now impossible for whatever reason? But then I stopped myself in my tracks - no doubt there ARE plenty of Bowies out there; it's just that I'm too old a fart to be aware of them. Best not to commit to sweeping dismissive generalisations about other generations or to succumb to rose-tinted "It were better in my day" nostalgia.

The film also prompted me to remember I need to review Tate Liverpool's Glam! exhibition at some point...

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