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Capturing Bowie September 24, 2022

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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A thoughtful review on Slate by Carl Wilson of the forthcoming Bowie documentary Moonage Daydream. But as it notes, documentary may be too kind a word. For there are no captions, no explanatory framing, nothing. As the piece notes.

And hey, what don’t you get from a rollercoaster that you might want from a documentary? Just little things like any sense of context or chronology, the identification of key figures, et cetera. I don’t mind that the narration is all excerpts of Bowie interviews. As one of the most erudite and eloquent rock stars ever, Bowie has no need of the rote talking heads in most music docs. But he also famously switched his stories and ideological lines frequently over the years, and it’s vital to interpreting him to know when the quotes come from. But this director is actively opposed to even on-screen captions. As Morgen told the LA Times, “I was trying to create an experience, and what’s the opposite of an experience? I would argue it’s information.”

That stance strikes me as not only (unintentionally) quasi-Trumpian but squarely hostile to Bowie as an artist. Yes, he generated mystique and contradiction, but he did so at the place where experience and information meet, every album laced with backstory and further signposts to artistic, cultural, philosophical, and sociological inspirations. What he loved was information overload. He was never anti-intellectual, except during the mid-1980s Let’s Dance phase when—newly recovered from years of drug addiction, broke, without a record contract, and usurped by a new generation that recycled all his past ideas (none of which you’d know from Morgen’s movie)—he conveniently decided the one style he’d never tried was mainstream pop.

I don’t think that is hyperbole. Bowie was indeed one of the more self-consciously culturally aware artists of his time linking in to movements and scenes and to a broader cultural hinterland in ways that were sometimes contradictory, often pretentious but always interesting. 

In fairness to Morgen, the director, there are many ways to tell the David Bowie story and this is one of them. But useful to get a sense of him as a cultural phenomenon, and for that as the author of the piece notes, you need some information. 

And perhaps there’s a greater truth. That in any documentary of whatever sort, actually getting a sense of the person or persons at their centre is much much more difficult than we might think. There’s been considerable discussion about how unknowable a figure the British monarch was, correctly so – surrounded by pomp and pageantry and ceremony. But in some ways assuming we can arrive at a point of ‘knowing’ another, particularly a celebrity through the medium of a documentary is a pointless exercise. And Bowie for me has always been elusive. I love much of his 1970s output, dislike much of his 1980s work and find parts of the later offerings to be of considerable interest. 

But there’s a duality there – the superstar of the 1980s, distant, in some ways unlikeable (I once had a glum evening watching a video of the Glass Spider tour in London in the early 1990s. Your mileage may vary). 

But then playing the Olympia in Dublin if I recall correctly in the mid to late 1990s and while I didn’t go I know lots of people who did from the original Dublin punk scene. He managed to pull in everyone. But not to take in everyone because the music was, in most of its those different facets of his career – at least at the time – is somewhat alienating to me, though why it should be in a world where New Order are a stadium band escapes me. Perhaps it is that he was clearly steely eyed in his ambitions. It wasn’t that the experimentation was inauthentic but that he appears to have wanted to do whatever it took to build popularity. And that perhaps is what led to the oddly inconsistent (at least from my perspective) output across the years. He wanted to be a pop star, an angular difficult contradictory pop star, but a pop star nonetheless. But he already was a pop star in the 1970s. From his perspective there was likely little objective change in his ambitions. The musical form might have shifted, as was inevitable, but he hadn’t changed.

As to what the David Bowie, the one offstage, the actual person was like. Well as Wilson notes:

Getting behind Bowie to the “real” David Jones was always a mug’s game, and I didn’t want Bowie home movies or gossip. What I didhope for from a film like this was documentation of the artist at work, making his music. 

I think that’s a fair critique. For an example, perhaps an example of overkill, consider the Peter Jackson Beatles documentary which came out recently. I’ve many problems with that, not least the interminable length. But it does give a sense of their art and their craft. I don’t know do I ‘know’ them better – though perhaps a little. But how they went around organising composition, arrangement, structure. Yeah, that I think I have a bit of a handle on. Similarly with the excellent documentary on the Velvet Underground which offers a real insight into the milieu that the group worked in (and visually is stunning). 

Perhaps that sort of footage doesn’t exist for Bowie. What his process was is a bit of a mystery (I’m always fascinated by the glam era – did he and the rest of the then band sit around and listen to other peoples music to gain inspiration or did they avoid all influences? Did they, urgghhh, listen to the Sweet?). 

It’s particularly disappointing to discover that there’s little or nothing from the 1990s and 2000s and 2010s, a period where Bowie was reenergised after the slump of the mid to late 1980s. But then perhaps that is inevitable – he was able to withdraw further and further back from public view as a global star with all that that entails. Yet that flourish of activity is surely of as much interest, or near enough as much interest, as the 1970s. And there’s a real danger that his legacy is one that then rests on a narrower pillar of achievement than was the actual case. 

Will I watch the documentary? Of course I will. 

For a different take here’s Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode on the same topic.

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