Ahead of his twenty fifth studio album Blackstar, Lorna Irvine looks at the BBC documentary which showed Bowie at a major turning point in his career.
Almost forty years after its creation, Alan Yentob’s candid documentary for the Beeb on David Bowie still stands up beautifully, juxtaposing the disintegration of Bowie’s health and ego as he ‘kills off’ the character Ziggy Stardust , with the unswerving adulation of crazed American fans.
Bowie never looked more vulnerable or lonely, sitting gaunt, elegant and pale in limos and hotel rooms where many of the interviews took place, clearly off his chops on drugs and wearing the nonplussed expression of one who got what he wanted but was ill-prepared to cope with it; yet as a man who clearly so wanted to be taken seriously as a true artist- not another conveyor belt, burn-out rock star.
Drinking milk to stave off the narcotic nausea, his responses range from jokey matey bravado, face-pulling and quips (” a bleedin’ waxworks museum in the desert…it’d melt, wouldn’t it!”) to more earnest reflection, this was the flip-side to the dream of stardom, with Bowie’s re-invention as a soul singer an antidote to creative ennui.
Some of it is toe-curlingly awful, as with his Spinal Tap style arrival on-stage on a giant glittery shoe, and the Lindsay Kemp-inspired mime , which hasn’t aged well, but it’s worth remembering that there was a paucity of ideas and theatricality in the pop music of the mid-70s (prog aside). Bowie did it all: masks; Burroughs’ cut-up technique, snogging Yorrick’s skull, a bizarre cat’s cradle bondage and covering Jacques Brel. Nothing was too indulgent, and the songs are so wonderful, so dense with ideas, brilliant and knowing that you can forgive the excess.
At a moment when nothing much is required of pop stars but looking sexy and saying little, it is a timely reminder that heroes could be sexy, stylish, bizarre and articulate. His fans are wonderful too, campily done up like Hollywood drag acts and saying things like, “I’m just a space cadet… and Bowie’s the commander”. Love it. You wouldn’t get that from Ed Sheeran’s or Gaga’s fans, would you? Fabulous.
He was a hero then, he is a hero now- not just for one day, but always and forever.
Cracked Actor was and is fitting testament to a musical innovator losing the plot, and finding new ones.
Blackstar is released on January 8th on Sony Records.