Tomorrow sees the opening of Bowiefest – the first film festival devoted o the cinematic output of legendary musician David Bowie. Taking place at the ICA in London, the festival is a mixture of film screenings (including Labyrinth, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence) and discussions with people who worked with Bowie over a film career that spans the length of his entire creative career.
I will be covering the festival for Failed Critics (as a huge Bowie fan I can barely contain my excitement), and I caught up with co-curators Oli Harbottle and Natasha Dack to discuss the festival.
How are preparations going?
Oli: We’re scarily close. We’ve had a run of sell-outs and tickets for the remaining events are going. It’s going to be a great weekend. Very excited.
You’ve pulled together an extensive and varied programme of films for the festival – which one are you most looking forward to seeing on the big screen?
Natasha: I’m Looking forward to taking my 8 year-old son to see Labyrinth, and also to seeing Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, a film about which Bowie said he was most pleased with his performance. Also looking forward to seeing Bowie dancing on the giant typewriter in Absolute Beginners and playing a 300 year old vampire in The Hunger. All of them in fact.
O: When Natasha and I were putting together the programme we obviously couldn’t include every Bowie film, so the ones we did choose are there for a particular reason. Personally, I think it’s really wonderful to have the two documentaries that are opening and closing the festival. Cracked Actor is a rare gem and I don’t think it’s ever had a cinematic screening, and having Alan Yentob along is just great. And the opening film [Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture] is just a great way to open the festival.
Can you tell us a little bit about how Alan Yentob and Jeremy Deller in conversation about Cracked Actor came about?
N: A film maker called Nicholas Abrahams alerted me to the fact that Jeremy Deller was a fan of the documentary, so I asked Jeremy if he would be interested in talking about the film, then I asked Alan Yentob. It sounds simple but it actually involved lots of stalking.
The film work of David Bowie is, at best underrated (and sometimes derided), so where did the idea to hold a festival celebrating his contribution to cinema come from?
N: Llike many good ideas it came from a slightly drunk conversation late at night. Oli and myself were discussing ideas for a niche film festival while attending a documentary film festival in Toronto. I had watched DB’s Glass Spider tour film on the plane on the way over to Toronto and somehow David Bowie was stuck in my head. We realised that Bowie had a loyal and large fan base and also had a varied back catalogue of film appearances – which combined to form the basis of BowieFest.
O: The Bowie idea just hit us, and it seemed like such an obvious idea in a lot of ways. Subsequently I’ve been thinking of other musical artists who have acted in films, but I don’t think there is anyone else for whom you could curate such a strong selection of films. We came back to London and had a follow-up meeting, but it was still very much an idea. Then we pitched it to the ICA at the end of last year, and the ICA seemed like such a good venue for the festival to take place. Bowie is from London, and I believe he used to be a patron at the ICA. The venue encapsulates everything Bowie encapsulates. Then it’s all happened so quickly in the last few months. We only announced the festival in July and the response has been incredible. We’re getting emails, and social media plugs from all across the world.
What is your earliest memory of seeing David Bowie onscreen?
O: Well, my first trip to the cinema was to see Labyrinth. As a first foray to the cinema that’s quite an unforgettable experience. I think Bowie has been imprinted in my mind since then. I’ve seen The Man Who Feel to Earth on the big screen, but I haven’t seen any of the others on the big screen, so it’s a bit of a self-indulgent festival as well.
N: David Bowie singing Heroes on the Marc Bolan show which I watched at my Nan’s house in 1977.
Is there another film that you wish you could be showing (but can’t for any reason)?
N: I would have loved to have shown Baal [Bertold Brecht play that Bowie was in, produced for BBC TV in the early 80s] but it’s a bit obscure. I would also love to have shown some of the early short films and mime pieces he appeared in in the late 60s/early 70s. And finally David Bowie as Elephant Man in the Broadway show – which sadly wasn’t filmed.
Tickets sales are going fantastically well, and is there anything else in particular that you would like to encourage people to come and see over the weekend?
O: I think Christiane F and The Hunger, which are playing back-to-back on Saturday night, are two extraordinary films. Christiane F is a cult-classic featuring Bowie in his Berlin days and is very rarely screened. Then The Hunger – it’s amazing that I picked up Time Out yesterday and it’s the number one critics’ choice for films to see this week. I think The Hunger, with the sad news recently of the death of Tony Scott, is a unique occasion to watch this film. The audience for both of these films, I think there will be a very real sense of people being there for the same reason, and when you go to the cinema I don’t think that’s always the case.
Huge thanks to Oli and Natasha for spending some of their increasingly precious time talking to me. BowieFest starts tomorrow (Friday 21st August) at the ICA and further details are available at http://bowiefest.net/, and you can follow the festival on twitter at @bowiefest.
Oli also said the word ‘Bowie-oke’ during the interview – so you may also find me fighting people off with only a microphone to defend myself.