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Hamish Hamilton's "David Bowie Is" Reviewed

David Bowie Age 16: he had no one to phone someone so he picked on us

David Bowie Age 16: he had no one to phone someone lso he picked on us

For those of us who live in neither London where the “David Bowie Is” exhibit of pictures, wardrobes, videos and other artifacts from all periods of the chameleon like popstar’s career, indeed,  life,   showed at the Victoria And Albert Museum, or Chicago, where the exhibit opens on September 23rd, you can at least see something of what you’re missing in Hamish Hamilton’s documentary.

Hamish Hamilton is the Blackpool born director who helmed the 82nd Academy Awards and the Opening And Closing ceremonies at the 2012 Olympic Games, so he knows how to shoot live multi-tiered celebrity baited performances and he is nothing if not the two things the movie demands, organized and swift,behind the camera on “David Bowie Is”.

The exhibition ran from 23 March – 11 August 2013 and it has been on the road since then,  reaching the  Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (MCA) on September 23rd,the same day  a  select 100 theaters across the US will exclusively screen t”David Bowie Is”  and if you’re a Bowie fanatic, or if you plan on going to show, it is a must see yet a little disappointing, it is strange Bowie would give so much of himself to the show yet not discuss it. An interview would’ve made a lot of difference  for people less fanatical then I am, Helen Bach walked out after ten minutes of the movie, it doesn’t quite work.

With co-curators and V&A directors Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes as our tour guides  and guest appearances from Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, cultural arbitrator Paul Morley, fashion designer Yamamoto, Hamish  and more, Hamilton attempts to immerse you in the exhibit and by extension into Bowie’s psyche, and doesn’t really do it. If taken as a standalone, its central figure remains opaque.  This is a problem but not to be surprised in an actor as cracked as Bowie. If you aren’t clear about Bowie, you will leave just about as bewildered. But if you go in a fan, getting close to, for instance,  the costume David wore   on Top Of the Pops while lip-syncing “Starman”is its own rewards.

The documentary begins very very well in a room devoted to pre-Bowie Jones. Starting with a huge  work that had a grain of rice representing every person born in London in 1947 (the largest of the post WW2 baby boom years), including Elton John and Marc Bolan as well as our Starman, it follows him through his success at the   “11 Pluses” (a brutal examination I failed monumentally and essentially is the story of your education in the UK back in the 50s)  to his earliest bands, where he designed the stage sets for his second band The Bowmen, a leap forward almost the definition of genius, almost constructing the door before the house.

After that the movie settles down to the filming of a live lecture which was really not very helpful, particular the Bowie as actor portion, and a trip from one room to another of the exhibit. The movie strains too hard from time to time, Jarvis’s comments about Bowie’s handwriting is really silly, and not hard enough, what Bowie fan wouldn’t rate his performance in “The Man Who Fell To Earth” his greatest?  It is like teaching a student of Black studies that Africa is a continent.

At its best, “Is” captures the ever changing Bowie as he moves from phase to phase in his career through his costume changes One visitor claims she had “a moment” while view his vest and pants during the “Thin White Duke” period of DB. At its worse, for some odd reason Bowie the live performer isn’t quite given its due.

And, of course, they over estimate the man at every turn. Nothing is made of his career from 1984 through 2003, when he retired till last year, something of a disaster on many levels. “David Bowie Is…” is more an infomercial than a critical  look at either the exhibit or the man.

So I go back to where I started, if you are a fan, an uber-fan like me, the movie is well worth seeing. You can fill in the blanks for yourself, and paintings, clothes, video, and especially his earliest career (the segment on “Space Oddity” is actually quite revealing), you need to see this. If you aren’t you really then don’t but if you are in Chicago, the exhibit itself looks wonderful.

Nothing is gonna get you too close to Bowie because Bowie has never wanted  you to get too close to him. Perhaps his greatest gift was to be so much to so many people while maintaining a mystery, a mystery “Is” doesn’t come close to mastering.


Fans Grade: B+

Everyone Else: C+

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