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David Bowie Is follows the David Bowie exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert museum, which claims to be an institution centred around creativity, art and performance, “intended to inspire others”. Having been to the V&A, I find this attempt to be relevant somewhat absurd—while the museum has a lot of wonderful works, it is very traditional to the point of being stuffy. Perhaps I should consider their attempts to include a greater variety of exhibitions on contemporary artists as laudable, but I can’t help feeling it just doesn’t quite feel authentic.
This impression is, I think, substantiated by the fact that all the good things I have to say about this movie are about David Bowie—not about David Bowie Is. Transforming an exhibition into a movie is a tricky concept at best, and wasn’t aided by the fact that I was sitting in the front row—poncy British people yelling at me about culture isn’t exactly my cup of tea. The film’s manner of panning through the exhibition was also really disruptive—the panoramas looked fake, and the frozen bodies of the exhibition viewers felt unnecessary and stilted. The cuts throughout the film to various people praising Bowie in front of an audience whilst standing on a large model of a stack of books also contributed little. It was all just a bit too self-congratulatory.
To be fair, the film did remind me why I love Bowie, and to some extent enlightened me as to what else there is to discover about him. For example, I now want to learn more about his Diamond Dogs and Berlin phases, as well as see The Man Who Fell To Earth (or any one of the other 19 films he’s starred in). David Bowie is an icon—a mercurial, androgynous, born performer who constantly sourced from the past, present and future. His adoption of multiple personas including Ziggy Stardust, Thin White Duke and Halloween Jack reflect a truly post-modern understanding of identity as multifaceted and most importantly, constructed. Similarly, it was interesting to see into his creative process—at one point he uses a computer program to randomly mix collections of words together into new sentences, a process of automatic writing associated with Dada and Surrealism. This speaks to the nature of words and the human capacity to find meaning in even the most nonsensical of couplings. Bowie uses the example of “the top is dead”—which makes him think of a 1930s-era industrialist boss committing suicide. The exhibition also includes various sketches made by Bowie since he was a teenager, planning out costumes (which were an integral part of his work) and even set designs. Similarly, his first major single “Space Oddity” was written in response to the first picture of the Earth taken from outer space, and it was great to see the original music video for this, as well as footage of his other performances and some of his most iconic photographs.
But that’s not really the point. David Bowie is amazing—we all know that. However, it felt like the film was attempting to reflect some of his starlight, rather than being of quality in its own right. This may have something to do with its attempt to transform an exhibition into the film medium. An exhibition in itself is one remove from the immediacy of Bowie and his art in a museum has an archiving, somewhat deadening effect on the objects it exhibits. And the film itself felt like one remove from the exhibition—a remove on top of a remove. Similarly, the film’s manner of situating Bowie within his times (e.g. the developments of New Britain, or the psychedelic 60s) did not feel coherent as a narrative and the film’s motif of using the phrase “David Bowie Is” followed by various descriptors ultimately felt pretty lame. In this way there was a lot of praise of Bowie and his work—but not that much actual insight into his music, style or performances. Finally, the ending was really weird: David Bowie playing “Heroes” at a benefit concert for 9/11—such a random way to bring this film to a close.
David Bowie Is is worth seeing in as much as you do get a sense of Bowie’s oeuvre, and get to see a few amazing images and videos. But this is truly a weird mix of mediums—don’t bother seeing it at the cinema.