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Bowie Is, documentary film review: ‘Poignant tribute after David Bowie’s death’

PUBLISHED: 17:00 04 July 2016

An installation shot of David Bowie Is. Picture: David Bowie Archive/Victoria and Albert Museum

An installation shot of David Bowie Is. Picture: David Bowie Archive/Victoria and Albert Museum

Archant

One of David Bowie’s great gift was spotting trends and seeing the way the wind was blowing before anyone else, a facility he retained right up till his death at the beginning of January 2016, taking his leave of us at the start of a truly horrendous year.

He was also meticulous about putting his affairs in orders before he went: he showed great prescience in handing over the contents of his personal archives to the Victoria and Albert museum to create a hugely popular exhibition that would cement his image and reputation and make sure everybody was up to speed when the time came for a period of global mourning.

This is a re-release of what was originally a live nationwide cinema event on the last day of the exhibition at the V&A, Tuesday August 13 2013, before it was packed off on its world tour (it’s still out there somewhere).

It’s the visual equivalent of the audio handset guides you can hire at museums or stately homes.

The curators Vicky Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh show us round the exhibits – film clips, sketches, artwork, handwritten lyrics and the costumes – while visitors give their opinions and guests give little speeches about him in front of an audience.

Making a rock star a museum exhibit shouldn’t work but the exhibition seemed to take Bowie as he wanted to be taken.

When the Rolling Stones try to carry off the same lark with a display of their old tat it just seems ridiculous, but Bowie and the V&A are a perfect match because both want to assign an objective importance to cultural ephemera.

I think the film also shows up how completely undiscerning the art world is; once it has been decided that you are A Great Artist, than everything you do becomes Great Art: even the mime.

What struck me though was how a streak of childishness is really central to Bowie’s work.

He was a small boy playing at being an adult, he never becomes a sophisticated; even when he was the coolest person on the planet an air of naffness stuck to him which made him identifiable. Everybody at this night in the museum talks and acts like a child.

The tone is one of unquestioning total adulation, but what stands out is the strength of the enthusiasm.

The show should be a nostalgia fest – All The Old Gits, carry the news – but everybody is as pant-wetting excited as teenagers waiting to see the Bay City Rollers.

The use of the present tense is poignantly, jarring.

The film makes more sense posthumously though.

It continually asserts that David Bowie Is Happening Now, but in truth Bowie had already largely absented himself from his own career by this stage – the original London exhibition acted as his publicity campaign for the release of his first album in 10 years, The Next Day.

David Bowie Isn’t any more, and this suddenly looks like a proper museum exhibition: artifacts dug up from a distant unknowable age.

Rating: 3/5 stars

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