Tuesday, July 19, 2016

David Bowie is back...on the big screen

review by Allan Tong

Six months after cancer claimed the iconic British musician, David Bowie returns to Canada on select Cineplex screens on July 21, 24 and 31. No, it's not The Man Who Fell to Earth or Labyrinth, but a documentary about Bowie's superb retrospective mounted by London's V&A Museum that traveled to cities from Toronto and Melbourne in 2013-5. Both the show and the film are called David Bowie is and both are indispensable to fans of rock music, pop culture and The Thin White Duke.

If you caught the exhibition, then the film is a 94-minute souvenir that perfectly recaptures the show. If you missed it, then the next best thing is to catch this documentary. David Bowie is is part museum guide, part documentary and part biography. It is an unusual creature in that the curators, Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, speak directly to the camera as in a TV special while periodically Bowie fans gush on camera about their idol as they would in a TV commercial.

However, David Bowie is redeems itself by detailing key moments in Bowie's life by deftly using the exhibitions rare photos, films, costumes, Bowie's audio interviews and his handwritten lyrics. The curators give us a tour of several exhibits, starting with photos of the teenage Bowie and his early band, The Kon-rads, looking confident and "imagining himself as a star already" rising from grim postwar England. We glimpse Bowie in a rare film performing mime under the key influence of teacher Lindsay Kemp, who would teach Bowie to adopt characters later in his music career. "It was much easier to be somebody else," Bowie says in voice-over.

The bulk of the exhibition and this movie are devoted to the 70s, when Bowie catapulted to international fame as Ziggy Stardust, then evolved into the Thin White Duke, moving onto his Berlin years and coming full circle with Ashes to Ashes in 1980. The film literally guides the viewer through each of Bowie's phases, explaining how and why he changed as well as offering the larger cultural context and influence.

We see excerpts of the early and later videos of Space Oddity as Marsh explains the the very first NASA photo of the blue Earth gave birth to Bowie's early anthem. No surprise that the film devotes generous time to the Ziggy era (skintight costumes, photos, sketches, handwritten lyrics to Five Years and Rock 'n' Roll Suicide). Photographer Terry O'Neill explains how the grotesque Diamond Dogs and the famous black-and-white photo of the menacing dog with Bowie were created. Later, we learn the design stories behind Bowie's torn British jacket from the Earthling cover and 2013's The Next Day cover. Also, a curator explains the influence that Cold War Berlin had on Bowie in the mid-70s and see the synthesizer that he used on Heroes.

Taking us out of the exhibits and adding a personal dimension are guest speakers filmed from the last night of the V&A exhibition. Most are fashion designers and musicians, such as Pulp's Jarvis Cocker, imparting how Bowie influenced their lives and art, but the standout is Japanese fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto who recalls how he was full of tears meeting Bowie because their souls were united, despite the language barrier. It sounds corny on the page, but Yamamoto is funny, incisive and heartfelt on screen.

David Bowie is worth seeing.

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