David Bowie Is

david bowie is posterFrom the very beginning of this documentary, the curators of the Victoria and Albert Museum are telling us that there are not one but several answers to what David Bowie is, which the title of their exhibit about the thin white duke.

Geoffrey Marsh, Victoria Broackes and their team seem to have put a lot of thoughts into creating this David Bowie exhibit and, to be frank, it was the only way to properly cover such a complex figure. Not only this is the most ambitious retrospective about the singer to date, but they also had unprecedented access to his archive allowing for hundreds of personal items to be displayed to the public for the first time.

For those of us who didn’t/won’t get the chance to catch David Bowie Is, whether it’s in London, Toronto, Sao Paulo, Chicago (Fall 2014 – I might try to see that one), Paris or Groninger, this documentary is the closest way to experience both the exhibit and its subject, with an additional twist to it. Giving us a look at David Bowie’s persona through a second prism, director Hamish Hamilton follows the exhibition while adding his own sense of artistry and mise-en-scène: although, most of the time, we get to stroll through the museum like everybody else, taking a guided tour, there are also moments when time freezes, allowing us to observe visitors while the exhibit seems to be coming to life.

Rather than going through a formulaic, chronological pattern, the exhibition has been organized by themes including his albums, stage personas, costumes, pictures, films, art works and performances while some important eras such as the Berlin years have their own dedicated room. In addition to the star’s own items, other artists were given the chance to give us their own representation of Mr. Bowie – and I particularly enjoyed a periodic table showcasing both his influences and his followers.
Because Mr. Bowie’s body of work is so extensive through various mediums, elements from this exhibit and documentary might resonate differently, depending on your own taste and generation. For example, growing up in the 80s, the album Let’s Dance served as an introduction to the myth while those born in the 50’s and 60’s might be attached to Ziggy Stardust. What’s however striking here is how certain elements – some being details – seem to be more noticeable when watching this documentary: For example, some visitors – and yours truly – paid more attention to his handwriting which looks particularly childish even when penning some of his most popular lyrics. Others show excitement seeing the costume the singer was wearing while performing “Starman” on TV – they all state how this performance changed everything. Another thing I noted is how some female visitors dressed up for the exhibit, which might have added another touch of rock n’ roll to the show.

Less interesting were however these sequences involving discussions in front of an audience: whether it was the curators or their special guests – from Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker to a fashion designer – I found these moments to be somewhat self-serving without bringing much to the table. I’m also surprised we were not given access to the opening, which featured dozens of prestigious guests including actors Robert Redford and Tilda Swinton (she was in one of Bowie’s latest videos), fashion icon Vivian Westwood, filmmakers Wim Wenders and Pedro Almodovar, music artists PJ Harvey, Paul Weller, Duran Duran and more.

The final question you might have is whether the Man from Mars himself attended the exhibit and is seen in this documentary. The answer is no and it’s all the better as, to be preserved, a myth should remain unreachable.

Director: Hamish Hamilton – Running Time: 1:34 – Year: 2014 – Country: UK

Click the links below to watch the trailer and read our review of The Hunger starring David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve:

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Fred Thom

Fred Thom

Editor-in-Chief/Founder/Film Critic at Plume Noire
The founder and editor-in-chief of Plume Noire, Fred Thom covers film festivals and writes movie reviews. He was born in Marseilles, France and is now living in Los Angeles, California.

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