David Bowie has been dead for 7 years, but people are still desperate for any sliver of new information about him and his work; which is a bit weird given how much he liked to talk. So, if you are desperate for a couple of previous never-before-seen footage, and a bunch of bits you possibly forgot you have already seen, then this estate-approved might be for you. Or it could just be a nice trip down a rather clean memory lane.
Writer and director/assembler Brett Morgen said that “Bowie cannot be defined, he can be experienced” and then absolutely stuck to his guns because this is all about experiencing 140 minutes of The Thin White Duke being shoved in your face. Interviews, live performances, and off-stage shenanigans are all rolled together in an attempt to go “Wow, wasn’t Bowie Great!?*” in as many ways as possible. A lot of it’s narrated by Bowie himself, so don’t worry about any scandal or criticism getting in the way of the hero worship.
The film starts in the glam era, with the always happy Spiders From Mars and an audience made up of school kids, during which Bowie was ground-breaking. There are live performances, stage antics, and a surprising amount of Russell Harty being visibly angry at Bowie besting him in an interview. It’s all badly shot, brightly coloured, and playful. Then, for no real reason, he goes to Berlin and develops an interest in art, Kraftwerk, and making three ground-breaking albums with a new band that I’m sure was treated well.
He then comes back to the UK and or the US, puts on a suit, finds love, becomes an even bigger star for the rest of his career, and does a lot of work with other famous musicians. Throw in some flashbacks to the only other two phases of his life, a load of movies sliced in (including a couple that he stared in), some more ground-breaking songs, and then he dies. Which we knew was coming, but means he possibly was human after all. Even after all that ground-breaking.
One thing that very much wasn’t ground-breaking was this film. It was an enjoyable watch, in and of itself, but then so would have been a random collection of his songs and interviews on YouTube. I’m also confused as to who the heck it was aimed at. Bowie fans will find nothing new or of interest and will notice how much of his work got skipped over (for example, Tin Machine and Iggy Pop were left out). People with a passing interest are likely to find the editing style overwhelming and the run time off-putting. This is before you get to how heavily sanitised and simplified the history was made.
There were several good bits, mostly when Bowie was on stage, and the selection of new soundbites possibly gave a bit more insight into him as a person. But the overall impact is unsubstantial and unengaging. It tried to be huge and inventive, which is very Bowie, but it ended up being unfocused and repetitive. Had it gone proper crazy and thrown linear story-telling out of the window, like it frequently hinted at, it would probably have worked but it played it far too safe.
It’s like someone took the tourist videos from the terminals at The Life Of David Bowie museum and glued them all together. The main effect on me was that it made me want to revisit some of his albums and live performances, rather than making me think I’d watched a great film. I can’t say it’s Trash, because it isn’t, but I can’t say it’s Treasure either as it’s got so many flaws and missed potential. It just is what it is, and if you watch it expecting nothing more than I couple of reminders as to how good David Bowie was then you’ll probably be satisfied with the result. Even if you won’t be bothered watching it again.
*He was, I’m not going to dispute that.