Film Review: David Bowie Is A Documentary (2015)

First David Bowie was ‘David Robert Jones’, before he changed his name in 1965. Then David Bowie was an up and coming musician after his first major hit Space Oddity in 1969. After that David Bowie was taking the world by storm when he created his iconic alter-ego Ziggy Stardust in 1972. Then David Bowie remained one of the most iconic and well-loved pop stars of the twentieth century. In 2013 David Bowie was given an exhibition at the London Museum called ‘David Bowie is’, charting his legacy, life and career. Now, in association with this exhibition, David Bowie Is: A Documentary.

This is the fascinating hybrid of a documentary and a guided tour through a museum exhibition. The David Bowie is collection was made by diving into the archives and reconstructing the sagas of his career. It’s all here, from his beginnings in post-war Britain with the band ‘the Kon-rads’ all the way to his latest album from a few years ago. You’re given unprecedented access to original sheet music written in Bowie’s own hand, over 50 lavish costumes, hundreds of photographs, rare videos and all the memorabilia you could want. Guiding you through the documentary are the two museum curators who made it all possible, flicking between the different sections of the museum to interviews with people who have worked with him over the years. Bowie’s music serves as the soundtrack to both documentary and exhibition, which is the best soundtrack you could ask for.

For all the film fans there’s quite a bit about his foray into the cinema, from The Man to Fell to Earth to his brief appearance as Nikolai Tesla in The Prestige and of course the Goblin King in Labyrinth (with those infamous tight pants where you could totally see the outline of his tackle).

The more you see and learn about David Bowie the more fascinating he becomes. The first thing you realize is that his pupils are uneven, one is always about three times the size of the other and once you see it you can’t stop noticing it (it’s called ‘anisocoria’ and it’s the result of a fight he had with a friend at school over a girl, where he got punched in the eye).  He has always been gangly thin and at times his hair does not abide by the laws of gravity. There’s also the matter of his sexuality; he came out as gay in his adult life, which understandably came as quite a shock to his wife and two children. Bowie has always been at the forefront of what’s described as “radical individualism”, and one of the most fascinating bits of sub-text is that in the background of the years he’s been active you can see the evolution of the Western world. The strict morals of the post-War years morph into the heady days of the 60s and the drug infused psychedelics of the 70s. Speaking of which, did you know LSD was legal in Britain until 1996?

The one thing totally absent is interviews with Bowie himself, which seems like quite an important thing to be missing out on. While this is fairly noticeable considering the name of the documentary, their compensated by including numerous vox pops with Bowie’s fans. He’s always been a rallying call for the curious and strange, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a rabid Bowie fan or just get Starman stuck in your head when it plays on the radio, this exhibition will show you all you want and more. It’s impossible not to be swept into his aura of strange visions and catchy tunes. As one person asks; is he a showman or a shaman? The jury’s still out.

David Bowie Is: A Documentary is a companion piece to the David Bowie is exhibition, which is starting its limited Australian showing at ACMI on July 16 as part of the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series. David Bowie is A Documentary comes to us via Sharmill Films. If you’re a fan of David Bowie, and let’s face it, who isn’t? It’s a must see.

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