If you weren’t lucky enough to be in the U.K. to see the Victoria and Albert Museum’s historic David Bowie exhibit, fear not. While the maestro himself isn’t touring now, the exhibit is, making its way to Chicago (and South America, Australia, Europe) and to movie theaters for a one-night showing of the movie “David Bowie Is” on Sept. 23. Even if you’re an agnostic fan, you should still show up to the screening because whether you realize it or not, the Brit chameleon has shaped a lot of music, fashion and art that you dig whether you realize it or not.
While Bowie gave the museum access to his archives, he had no involvement in the exhibit otherwise, and though he released a surprise album within the past year, he’s been mostly out of the spotlight since his last tour 10 years ago. While the exhibit and the movie about it fill in many details about his life, we still get the impression that the world-famous artist is still an elusive figure.
Beginning with his upbringing in South London (he was born 1947), Bowie emerged from a welfare state of rationing which mixed post-war trauma and boredom as part of his suburban life. But then rock ‘n’ roll roared into the U.K. through records, shows and films, giving boomers a taste of freedom. Early on, Bowie picked up not only on the music but also fashion, designing costumers for the first bands he joined. Later fans might be surprised to find that his first releases were folk and baroque pop but as he often did, he picked up on styles and rode their wave. He heard the gritty urbane noise of the Velvet Underground and was fascinated by it. Going through a mod phase that was all the rage in Swinging London, he also took up mime and worked on conceptual videos, long before MTV aired. From then on, his impact on mainstream culture came at just the right time, as the ’60s changed over into the ’70s. “Space Oddity,” released in 1969, was influenced by the moon landing, but the song itself became identified with the space mission, eventually becoming its soundtrack as well as Bowie’s first hit.
The exhibit/movie document this well as we see his early posters, drawings and photos alongside contemporary cultural artifacts to give a time and place to the work. There we see original drafts of his lyrics, complete with cross-outs and rewrites, documenting his bleak view of “The ‘Me’ Decade.” Alongside them are 60 different costumes Bowie used for photo shoots, album covers and concerts, including most famously his “Starman” outfit from his ’72 “Top of the Pops” TV appearance where his weird, androgynous skin-tight jump suit and bright colors amazed viewers across England. This became part of his “Ziggy Stardust” persona, which made him an international sensation before he killed off the character the following year to move onto his next phase.
Subsequent personas are seen in the form of Halloween Jack (for 1974’s elaborate “Diamond Dogs” show), his suave, sleek suit for his Thin White Duke persona of 1976’s “Station to Station” tour and a burnt Union Jack jacket from his 1997 “Earthling” album. Seeing all of the costumes in one place is extraordinary, not to mention the stunning photos throughout the decades that are seen there, too, showing his different styles. Also, it shows a timeline of Bowie’s work and, in a way, tells his story.
As we see in the film/exhibit, Bowie wasn’t just style/fashion. Taking a page from Beat pioneer William S. Burroughs, he worked random/chance decisions into his songwriting process via ace producer and collaborator Brian Eno and a Verbasizer program that helps him randomize lyrics for songs. In addition to Burroughs, Bowie was also a fan of George Orwell, whose “1984” was a major influence for “Diamond Dogs.” Along with “Space Oddity,” Bowie he also storyboarded his own videos throughout the ’70s, including the infamous “Boys Keep Swinging” and the renouned, surreal “Ashes to Ashes.” Not surprisingly, his acting abilities translated into movie roles like “The Man Who Fell To Earth,” “Labyrinth” and “Basquiat.”
Later in “David Bowie Is,” Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker appears to talk about how Bowie had a big influence on him with not only his lyrics but also with his constant reinvention, relating how people would dress up like him for “Bowie Nights” at clubs, which would become a free expression space. As such, people saw Bowie as one of them and used his example as a way to try out ideas as he inspired others to act differently. Indeed, you see his influence in everything from Lady Gaga and fashions to cartoons and illustrations mimicking his ideas, which he himself absorbed from elsewhere.
In addition to the V&A Museum show’s curators, Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, who narrate much of the film, we also hear from Cocker, historians, professors, designers and artists who also praise Bowie’s work. How many other artists could cultivate a following across such a wide spectrum of arts? Not many, which is why even in his elusive present state, Bowie’s work still filters through many parts of our present day pop world. It’s only fair as he stole his best ideas from there and recycled them like the expert cultural ecologist he is.
For info about “David Bowie Is” screening times and places, visit this website.
Jason Gross is the social media manager for TheBlot Magazine.