Bowie: The Man Who Changed the World (2016)
Director: Sonia Anderson
Plot: A look-back on the life of the recently passed song, exploring his phenomenal career and it’s outstanding effect it has had on the whole world.
6 months on, I am still in absolute disbelief that the icon that is David Bowie has passed on. It just doesn’t seem possible that such a vibrant driving force in music and art, whose work has had an effect throughout the fashions and attitudes of the latter half of the 20th century and up to today, can just disappear. Even after a half year, the sad news of his death just hasn’t processed. He was one of the first celebrities whose death had deeply saddened me and, to be honest, I don’t entirely feel like I should be allowed as I have only scratched at the surface of his enormous musical back-log. Yet, this is such a testament to his talent: a single David Bowie song has the power to reach into a person’s soul and profoundly affect them. That’s why, half a year on, I was intrigued to watch this little biographical documentary. Bowie is largely an enigma to me and is so to a lot of his fans; so I was eager to find out more, especially in the hope that the more I learnt the more I could appreciate his songs. This documentary was certainly more than I expected.
It all kicked off with clips of Bowie in his element, strutting his stuff on stage in all of his different guises, as bodiless voices gushed over the unfathomable talent of the man. Nice. It did make me wonder, however, if it was going to be a movie of incessant hero-worship, which enjoyable as it is, can be forgettable, and thus I thought the film was in danger of having very little impact on any audience. Thankfully the documentary doesn’t disappoint as it flies back in time to the nitty gritty David Jones origin story. In fact, I have never found out so much about David Bowie’s formative years in any other TV show, book or article, than I did through this movie. It led to the wonderful moment of me being able to relate to the almost god-like star who was previously so untouchable, and I feel a lot of other people would discover this as well, and hopefully with as much delight. Not hugely close to his parents; desperate to get out of the family home; failed exams; left school with hardly any qualifications; formed several bands in his youth, most of which had little success; was often penniless so slummed it with good friends; music tastes influenced by TV and cooler older siblings. It’s just really awesome to listen to these tales and smile, being able to recognise yourself in them. They were made more satisfying knowing the stories came straight from the horse’s mouth as they were all regaled by Bowie’s friends from his youth including: Dana Gillespie, who from her teens worked hard in London with Bowie, trying to begin their music careers (and also her acting career), even providing the backing vocals for the hugely famous Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars album; Mary Finnigan, a childhood friend who supported Bowie during his early career, being both his landlady and lover; George Underwood, who played with Bowie in George and the Dragons and The King Bees and famously punched him in the face, injuring his eye and giving him his distinctive appearance. Some aspects of his life were particularly moving and truly felt like a window into the soul of someone who often seems so other worldly he can’t be real. Finding out David’s older brother, Terry Jones – who hugely influenced the young David Jones’ music tastes – was institutionalised and later committed suicide was just incredibly sad, especially when the chaos this created in David’s life is so evidently reflected in some of his later mad and tumultuous work.
It was enjoyable to find that I could relate to the great man himself, but his path to fame was so absorbing itself, as it was simply just extraordinary by the fact that since the beginning, he was incredibly musically talented and unafraid to be quirky – since he was a teenager he had been mistaken for a girl, and dyed his hair a whole range of mad colours (which in all honesty was several decades ahead of time). Yet despite all this natural talent, Bowie still worked bloody hard for a very long time before he had any success. This alone filled me with such admiration, for the current music career seems to be a vocation for individuals who have been granted instant fame for winning some talent competition, and although they may have a good set of lungs, they are understandably in no way true musical craftsman as Bowie was. Their fame has come with little work, knowledge and effort (and it’s so annoying when there are so many hugely talented unknowns who slog their guts out for music for the sheer love of it, without any recognition at all). Bowie from the very beginning had studied music, he apprenticed in music forming several bands, including the Konrads in 1962 at the age of 15. From that very first moment he never stopped. He was in band after band throughout the sixties, constantly evolving and changing, being involved in all different genres such as the Blues and folk. In the band he formed with his girlfriend of the time, Hermione Farthingale, he would interpret the music via the medium of mime during live performances. It’s astonishing. Someone who explores music and its performance that much just radiates the passion he has for the art-form, way beyond the most of us who just listen to records. His life was consumed by it – he even states in one of his interviews from when he was older that he wrote something every day, he couldn’t help it; he had to write at least one small thing, even when it was a massive inconvenience to himself. And, most importantly, he did all of this when it often did not yield any glory or massive fame – other than for his bands, he did the odd record such as Over the Wall We Go (All Coppers are Nanas) for Paul Nicholas (which is now my new favourite Bowie song), formed a folk club in the local pub, created a free music festival in the park. Even Space Oddity, which thrust him under the limelight had a bit of a short-lived effect, ending up as a bit of a one-hit wonder, and Bowie struggled to get a foot-hold again. This portion of the documentary alone made me love David Bowie exponentially more than I did before: his dedication and passion is a credit to the British music industry and it simply gave me hope. Being a young person in a bit of a dead end job, it has encouraged me to keep trying and to keep faith that hard work can still be rewarded.
Many of the other focuses of this documentary were just as absolutely fascinating as well. I have enjoyed learning so much about Bowie it makes me sad that there are no such things as Rock music lessons at school. To the credit of the film, it also didn’t drag by following a chronological order, instead taking a break from the biography to look at the different aspects of Bowie’s career such as his many personas and his incredible song-writing talent. It’s hard to think that such a charismatic figure on stage could be such a reserved and quiet man who sometimes lacked confidence. After struggling to fit into a scene and niche in his early music career, he quickly adapted to using a character on-stage to use in his music to help make him feel less vulnerable – performing through a character that wasn’t him, which is seen as early as Over the Wall We Go (All Coppers are Nanas) from 1967, a wonderful piece of satire, and the first most recognisable one being Ziggy Stardust of course. It cannot be articulated how significant this little trick was on David Bowie’s career, Ziggy helped create the whole alien image Bowie carried throughout the rest of his life, which made audiences everywhere so curious of him. The all glittery, sparkly, androgynous look had never been so widely received before and created a new form of music and musical performance – Glam Rock. Blokes in glitter and make-up is now such a huge part of the modern music industry that it’s easy to forget the enormity of what David Bowie did. The effeminate image of Ziggy and his implied gay/bisexual orientation actually broke-down substantial societal barriers and helped to encourage gay pride. He was a young person thrust into the public gaze unashamedly being who he is and was in turn adored, giving hope and courage to those oppressed and ashamed of who they are, encouraging that they should delight in it as well. Wonderful.
Compiled of talking heads alongside some of David Bowie’s interviews, the film is unafraid to document Bowie’s life in a “warts and all light” kind of way, and wades knee-deep into the more controversial parts of his life. Some of the sights to behold included Mary Finnegan scolding herself for allowing Bowie and his new girlfriend (and future wife) to live in her apartment after Bowie lost interest in her as a lover – I mean how brazen of Bowie!? I was shocked at Angie Bowie’s strong words against David with regard to his infidelity and their subsequent divorce, describing him as a skank and cowardly. After such a cool youth as a penniless artist, it was sad to learn of his lifestyle particularly during his Thin White Duke era: constant parties and drugs enabled by his then manager, Tony DeFries without any thought put aside for where the money was coming from; a life completely out of touch with the young fans who adored him. Interview footage of David himself conjured quite a conflicting image of him. On some occasions, mostly when he was younger, he was incredibly obtuse, frustrating interviewers and most likely some fans who just wanted to find out about his new tour. To be fair, I can understand this as it felt like an awesome wind-up to the old farts interviewing him who just didn’t get the glam rock thing and were trying to poke fun at it. But, at the same time, in one interview he claims that his outfit for the tour wasn’t important and hadn’t thought about it at all, and we all know how iconic his changing image was to his rock-star persona. It did, however, add to the whole alien thing, like he didn’t understand human conventions or societal norms. But then, in his interviews from when he was older, it becomes apparent that the different characters he adopted throughout his career were a part of establishing confidence, and in his maturity he no longer felt the need for them, just wanting to convey music in its purest form. The twisting, writhing contradictions that flowed from Bowie, made him frustratingly hard to pin him down, but then I suppose that was his intention, and it sure does make him a fascinating documentary subject. This does, however, let us sneak a peek of his ordinary human side: a young man hiding his quiet, reserved self, whilst gaining intrigue and fame through mad put-on quirks and fancies, giving him an air of otherness to fake a sense of immortality. And then it all come to pass as he grows older and wiser, finding he has no need of these disguises, many of the things he found so important in his youth, are not so much now.
There are many more topics covered in this documentary than what I have touched on in this review, enough to capture the attention of any Bowie-phile or mildly curious spectator. However, this meant that there were points of the film in which I found myself a bit bored. During the hectic days of Tony Defries’ management, Bowie realised he was being exploited and he wasn’t getting all that much money for the records he produced. This experience led to Bowie running his artistry as a business. Fascinating aspects of this I am sure, but it did not fire any interest in myself. Also, after such an extended look at Bowie’s early life, other parts of his life and career had much briefer look-ins. This did make the second half of the documentary feel incredibly rushed. I also did get a bit frustrated that the documentary gave a lot of time to some of the less exciting topics, and then barely covered the more (and this may be shallow of me I might admit) sensationalist parts of his life … you can’t have his ex call him a skank in a tribute to his life and not further explore it; can you? And, at the end of the day, as amazing and revealing this documentary was, the fact that most of the narratives and stories were relayed from different people’s accounts of him (and yes, there were consistencies between the different accounts), meant that the documentary lacked a major neutral narrative; the documentary’s authority could be questioned.
Even so, such faults and criticisms do not detract greatly from the film. There is plenty to offer to any Bowie fan and, no matter how much you know about the legend himself, I am sure this documentary will let you remember this remarkable human being with the greatest fondness. This documentary succeeds in making you realise what a real loss his passing truly was.
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