After the intensity of Bowiefest Day Two (four films, three over two hours long and all of them pretty bleak – with only a 15-minute break between each screening), the final day of Bowiefest looked like being a walk in the park. A couple of musicals and a 50-minute TV documentary featuring lashings of Bowie performing live. I even managed to pop out for some food at one point!
First up was Labyrinth – the film that co-curator Oli Harbottle told us before the showing was his first foray to the cinema, and that Bowie’s codpiece “had stayed with him ever since”. For many this is David Bowie, with the film being an influence on a great number of people of a certain age – in some cases more than his music. It was certainly my introduction to David Bowie (both the man and his music). It’s the Top of the Pops ‘Starman’ moment for a great many thirty-somethings.
It’s a sign of how deep down the rabbit-hole that Day Two had taken me that this review was very nearly as dark as anything I had seen the day before. My notepad is full of scribblings like this:
Dreams within dreams
Sarah’s room = the Usual Suspects notice board
Fantasy driven by sexual awakening. Puberty
“Your mother is a fucking aardvark” (I’m sure I heard this in the background of a scene)
The 99%. “It’s not fair” “You say that so often. I wonder what your basis for comparison is”
50 Shades!!! (nope, me neither).
I may need some counselling after this weekend.
Luckily my childhood-self pulled my through and I was able to enjoy Labyrinth for exactly what it is – a wonderful fairy-tale featuring some of Jim Henson’s best work, a charming script from a Python (Terry Jones), and David Bowie at his theatrical best.
What is great about Bowie’s performance here is that he’s just enjoying himself. There’s no sense that all of this is somehow beneath him. He embraces the chance to entertain an entirely new audience that brings with it different challenges and rewards (rather like Rik Mayall’s utterly captivating rendition of George’s Marvellous Medicine for BBC’s Jackanory).
I was a little worried about this screening. Julien Temple’s film was a massive commercial flop on release, and hasn’t even gone on to be a cult late-night television or DVD hit in the intervening years.
Based on the 1959 novel by Colin MacInnes, Absolute Beginners is a theatrical, stagey musical detailing the rise of the teenage in London in 1958. The opening half of the film is a very jaunty story about a young couple in love who lose each other to a modicum of fame and fortune – each selling out their integrity in different ways. The second half is a far darker exploration of the Notting Hill race riots (although there’s still plenty of West Side Story-esque dance-fight scenes).
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s actually a lot better than I remember, and dare I say – even underrated? Colin (Eddie O’Connell) and Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kensit) have to deliver a few duff lines and bits of cod-psychology, but we believe them and ultimately want them to be together. David Bowie plays evil advertising executive Vendice Partners, a cross between Don Draper and Mephistopheles who corrupts Colin by singing ‘That’s Motivation’ on a giant keyboard. Even Lionel Blair is half-decent! Simply put, if that doesn’t sound like your idea of fun then you may want to avoid Absolute Beginners.
Alan Yentob in conversation with Jeremy Deller about CRACKED ACTOR
Bowiefest closed with the most-anticipated event of the weekend – a very rare screening of the 1974 BBC documentary Cracked Actor (followed by the director Alan Yentob in conversation with Bowie fan and Turner-winning artist/film-maker Jeremy Deller).
For those of us who have had to make do with excerpts of the documentary on YouTube for the last few years this was a real treat. Not only was the picture in great condition, but hearing the sound of Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour through the excellent ICA sound system was fantastic.
Afterwards Jeremy Deller described this as “Bowie’s best onscreen performance”, and after seeing so many of them this weekend I could not argue with that. Bowie’s paranoia and the effects of the cocaine he was using at the time are punctuated by moments of brutally honest truths. The mask never slips though, and Bowie is in complete command of himself, and this film.
The influence of Cracked Actor can be felt in a number of surprising places. Obviously the live music elements of the Diamond Dogs tour have gone on to influence pretty much every stadium tour that followed, but it’s influence can also been keenly felt in the world of comedy. Yentob revealed that Carl Reiner used one of the cameramen from Cracked Actor for This Is Spinal Tap, and there’s a moment where Bowie is reading out the label of one of his Japanese costumes and translates for us as “dry-cleaning only” in such a way that Ricky Gervais MUST has based elements of The Office on this documentary.
And that is that. Bowiefest has been a huge success with multiple sell-outs of events, and plans to take it on the road in early-2013. More than that though, it has been a timely reminder of the incredible talent of David Bowie. Although he has earned his retirement many times over, the world is a slightly less wonderful place without him working.
I would like to thank Oli and Natasha, and the excellent and friendly staff at the ICA London for delivering such a wonderfully run event.
If you want to hear more about Bowiefest, this weeks Failed Critics Review will feature an extended report.