Tag Archives: Bowiefest

Failed Critics Review: Bowiefest and Total Recall

The return of the Fat White Duke – yep, James is back from London and is here to tell us about Bowiefest, the first film festival devoted to the cinematic work of David Bowie.

Also this week, the Failed Critics review Total Recall, a film that is definitely a remake of the 1990 Arnie classic, regardless of what the studio tells us.

We also discuss what we’ve been watching this week including The Hunger Games, Labyrinth, Very Bad Things, and Jean Claude van Damme’s classic Time Cop.

Join us on Friday for Triple Bill, where we choose our favourite true-life stories that we would love to see made into films.



Bowiefest Day Three – Review

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).

Absolute Beginners

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.

Bowiefest Day Two – Review

Although opening night was a fantastic experience, today was the day that Bowiefest really got going. Four films back-to-back that feature David Bowie throughout – three of them in leading acting roles. What I wasn’t prepared for was how exhausting the day would be. Physically (9 hours in a cinema seat with only a 10 minute gap between films), but also mentally – the first three films were all over 2 hours long and had themes ranging from the treatment of POWs in Japan during WWII to the child sex-trade. Thank God I’ve got Labyrinth to look forward to tomorrow.

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence

Nagisa Oshima’s first film for a western audience features Bowie as Jack Celliers; a rebellious Major in the British Army who surrenders himself to save a village and forms a complex relationship with his POW Camp Commander (also played by a ‘rock star’ – Ryuichi Sakamoto).

This is a fascinating clash of cultures on a number of levels, and the eponymous Mr Lawrence (played beautifully by Tom Conte) sums up the heart of the film towards the end saying “we’re all wrong”.

Bowie has said that this is his most credible performance, and it’s easy to see why. He’s not playing a version of himself here, rather he plays Celliers like a latter-day Lawrence of Arabia. This film is the perfect riposte to any lingering doubts about his acting ability.

The most interesting dynamic in the film though is Conte’s Colonel Lawrence (a British officer who speaks Japanese and tries to understand his Japanese captors) and Sgt. Hara, the Japanese second-in-command played by Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano in his first English-language film. The mutual respect is always on a knife-edge between these two soldiers, with Hara telling Lawrence during a particularly heartfelt scene that he would admire Lawrence “more if you killed yourself”.

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is a complex and layered study of duty, shame, and the unlikely relationships that develop during times of war.

The Man Who Fell To Earth

This film was Bowie’s first major acting role, and features him playing an alien who has come to Earth with the best intentions of saving his home planet, but who becomes seduced by the temptations of the human race. Sound familiar?

The Man Who Fell to Earth is a massively ambitious film from Nic Roeg, and it quite literally reaches for the stars. The story is a bit of a mess at times however, and its 139 minute run time is a sign that a stricter editor may have been able to pull together a tighter film.

Its saving grace is in the universally excellent performances. Bowie was cast by Roeg after seeing the Cracked Actor documentary, which featured the singer showing the signs of being a paranoid outsider that simply are Thomas Jerome Newton. Rip Torn is also captivating as the scientist who gives up his easy life of teaching and sleeping with students at a university to become Newton’s closest advisor.

There are a great number of brilliant ideas going on here, but the overall picture is arguably a little less than the sum of its parts.

Christiane F

Christiane F has been the real surprise of the festival for me. Directed by Uli Edel in 1981, this West German film follows the story of the title character as she goes from 13 year-old girl sneaking into a club called Sound to 14 year-old drug addict and, eventually, victim of the sex industry.

Shot on largely on handheld cameras, it’s a cinema verite look at a shocking underbelly in a modern (at the time) western city. The actors were almost all non-professional, and it’s incredible to think that Natja Brunckhorst (playing Christiane) was only 14 at the time of filming. I have not been punched in the stomach like this by a performance for a very long time.

Halfway through the film, the potential significance of the title is revealed, and the viewer spends the last half of the film feeling physically sick (on a number of occasions this is due to the shockingly realistic portrayal of drug addiction on screen), and by the end of the film I had to get out of the cinema just to catch my breath.

To compound my feelings, it was only after the screening I realised the film is based on the true-life memoirs of Christiane. This explains my feeling that at times this played out like an extreme public information video about the dangers of drugs. Christiane’s descent was predictable, with each step telegraphed at times – but it’s this predictability and inevitability which is at the heart of the films power.

An incredible experience.

The Hunger

Tony Scott’s debut film about ‘vampires’ is very eighties, schlocky, and quite a bit of fun. Catherine Deneuve plays Miriam, an Egyptian immortal who drinks the blood of her victims – but without fangs, or an aversion to sunlight. Part of this films problem is it doesn’t know if it’s a vampire piece or not.

Bowie plays her current lover, a 300 year-old cellist who starts to age rapidly (with some fantastic make-up for the time – certainly better than the recent attempt on J. Edgar). He seeks out the help of aging-specialist Dr Sarah Roberts (a very young Susan Sarandon). However, when Bowie ‘dies’, Miriam decides to seduce Roberts and make her the new companion.

I’ll be honest, it was late, and I was tired, but this was a pretty ridiculous film. The very graphic sex-scene between Deneuve and Sarandon seemed to produce more laughs than anything else in the audience, and the last half-hour was even more ludicrous.

However, there was still a lot of fun to be had and as an insight into the work of the recently deceased Tony Scott it was most interesting.

A tiring day, but a very enjoyable one. It was great to see some films I’d not seen in years on the big screen – and in a couple of cases the scratchy film added to the experience. Christiane F in particular will stay with me for a very long time.

One day to go…

Bowiefest Day One – Review

Today sees the start of a film festival that I had never dared dream happen. A festival celebrating the cinematic work of David Bowie. Despite thinking that this appealed to me, and me alone, tickets have been selling so fast the ICA have had to schedule further screenings of Labyrinth and The Hunger to satisfy demand.

For the next three days I will be watching ALL THE BOWIE (which I believe is the internet-approved vernacular) and reporting and reviewing everything for you lucky, lucky Failed Critics readers. There may even be something special for our podcast listeners…

Culture Now: Woody Woodmansey in conversation with Tom Wilcox

This is a film site, so I can won’t say too much about this wonderful event as it was purely focused on the music of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

What I will say is that Woody Woodmansey is a very warm and compelling individual, who shone a light on some dark corners of the era in question.

One of the most interesting things I learned this afternoon was that before recording Hunky Dory, Mick Ronson returned to his childhood piano teacher in Hull to ‘finish his studies’ and learn arrangement. His first arrangement after that? Life on Mars.

It was also interesting to hear the Bowie/Spiders creative process at the time. Ziggy Stardust was recorded in just a week, due to the fact the band never did more than 3 takes of a song. Woodmansey explains “When you do it a third time you’re repeating. Not creating.” In fact while recording the first take of Jean Genie, Trevor Bolding hit a wrong bass note. Although the band got ready to go again, Bowie said “that’s the take”. Bolding tried to explain that he’d made a mistake, but Bowie said he actually liked it. Fascinating insight.

We were also treated to an exclusive announcement while Woodmansey was discussing the influence Ziggy had on many contemporary artists. He and Bolder will be playing Ziggy in full at Hammersmith Apollo in April with guest musicians. I personally cannot wait.

Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders from Mars: The Motion Picture

If I had a time machine the first thing I would do wouldn’t be to go back and kill Hitler, or look at dinosaurs. No, I’d travel back to Hammersmith Odeon on 3rd July to see the last ever gig by Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

This was the infamous gig where Bowie “had to break up the band”, which was news to drummer Woody Woodmansey and bassist Trevor Bolder.

Tonight’s screening is preceeded by a few words from Mick Ronson’s sister Maggie. She shared with us her memories from the tour, and I’ll happily admit I nearly shed a tear in the cinema once more.

Once the film started I felt closer to the events than ever before. Not just because of the excellent screening facilities at the ICA, but because I’m watching it with a large group of people all here for the same purpose. We tap our feet in unison. We laugh at the same places during the intimate, almost cute, backstage footage, and we cheer and applaud like crazy at the end of every song.

What really comes across in this film is how much of a band the Spiders from Mars where, and how they were vital for Bowie’s sound at the time. He may have dispensed with their service services by the time Diamond Dogs was recorded, but you could argue he tried, and failed, to recreate that vibe for the rest of his career. Ronson especially takes centre stage on a number of occasions to showcase his incredible talent.

Finally, it was great to see a number of kids in the audience. You are never too young to watch this film. And you can never watch it too many times.

And that’s that for Day One. A nice easy start to the festival that highlighted what I already knew about David Bowie – that he’s a musical genius and the run of Hunky Dory/Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane is up there with any artists’ most creative period in human history.

Tomorrow we get our teeth into more complex and controversial arguments about Bowie’s worth as an actor.

Things I’ve learned today: The Ronson family still drink ‘Ziggy Specials’ – advocat, brandy, and lemonade. Ouch!

Quote of the day: “We liked Velvet Underground, but I didn’t think they played well. I didn’t think Lou sang well. Sorry Lou”. Woody Woodmansey on a major influence on the sound of Ziggy Stardust.

Watch That Man! – Bowiefest Preview

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.

I will be blogging/tweeting/shouting at strangers in the ICA bar during the festival, so check back on failedcritics.com, and follow me on @thefailedcritic.

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.