David Bowie Is

Part documentary, part promotion for the exhibition of the same name, David Bowie Is leaves audiences wanting more.
David Bowie Is

Image: supplied

How fitting that David Bowie Is, part documentary, part promotion for the exhibition of the same name, opens with the familiar strains of his single Fame. The chameleonic musician and actor’s infamy, only increasing with each of his five decades in show business, is what made has made such celebrations of his stardom possible. Now, his popularity, renown, and the reverence with which he is held exceed that of just an artist; David Bowie is an icon.

In 2013, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum paid tribute to Bowie with an extensive collection of memorabilia, bringing together more than 300 objects for the first time. The exhibition gained access to a treasure trove of his personal artefacts, unseen childhood photos and mementos, rare sketches from his teenage hand, and scribblings made throughout his career intermingled with the expected media clippings, costumes, posters, photographs, records, lyrics and music videos. A tour followed, inching its way around the world. In 2015, it will arrive on Australian shores, with screenings of David Bowie Is, the film, a precursor. 

Shot on the original exhibition’s final evening by Hamish Hamilton and Katy Mullan, the former the BAFTA winning helmer of the Academy Awards and the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, the documentary surveys the spaces of the museum, its walls, celings and floors filled with Bowie paraphernalia. The singer's chronology provides a loose framework for what amounts to a guided overview, with the show’s own thematic strands also influencing the assembly of content. Curators Vicky Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh act as hosts, offering information and context; other talking heads – some experts, others fans – add their knowledge, recollections and excitement in support. An amalgam of insight and advertising is the clear intention, as well as the end result.

The film, although adhering to the alternate content trend that includes a growing number of comparable walks through galleries and museums, cataloguing a wealth of fascinating trinkets and furnishing trivia tidbits, suffers in the expected area: seeing images of costumes in cases, photos on walls, and people looking at them affectionately certainly whets the appetite for attending in person, but their dry presentation can never substitute for the immersive experience of the real thing. Similarly, the repetitive gushing about the importance of the collection may stem from adoration and play to fans, the obvious audience, but loses its impact each time the message is sold.

Instead, it is the elements better suited to the cinematic treatment that makes David Bowie Is worth watching for those enamoured with the inimitable entertainer, including montages set to his extensive catalogue of hits, and compilations of footage – music videos, concerts and his notorious performance of Starman on Top of the Pops among them. Segments from an event held on the night of shooting vary in their interest; however presentations by Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker on Bowie’s writing, and fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto, the man behind the Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane costumes, spark a desire for detailed conversations. Indeed, beyond showcasing an event every Bowie aficionado will want to see anyway, the film’s best outcome is in leaving viewers wanting more. In-depth content, that is, even beyond the exhibition itself. If ever there’s a figure crying out for lengthy documentary coverage, it is the one and only David Bowie.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

David Bowie Is
Director: Hamish Hamilton and Katy Mullan
UK, 2013, 94 mins

Release date: November 14
Distributor: Sharmill

Sarah Ward

Thursday 13 November, 2014

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay