David Bowie Is

A new exhibition and documentary focus on the Thin White Duke's career, but lack that personal touch

As the audience take their seats in Queen's Film Theatre for this sold-out nationwide cinema event – broadcast live from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London – an onscreen countdown accompanies a succession of footage showing visitors to the David Bowie Is... exhibition.

They hold up placards with the unfinished sentence scrawled on them, followed by a word that signifies what the chameleon from Brixton means to them. Fashion, God, and everything in between. The film that follows – part documentary, part ‘live experience’ – sets out the hypothesis that Bowie is both of these things – a god of fashion? – and more.

Showing as the finale to the enormously successful V&A exhibition, which has been running since March 2013, David Bowie is Happening Now gives a cinema audience unable to attend the V&A the opportunity to explore the show.

It features pre-recorded documentary footage set next to live inserts from the exhibition, and special guests appearances offering insight into the stories behind some of the 300 objects from the David Bowie archive handpicked by curators Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, who also act as hosts for this live stream.

At a hefty £12.50 (the exhibition itself was only a few pounds more to visit), what we – the cinema goers – experience is a fascinating insight into both the creative life of the artist and a virtual tour of the exhibition, though arguably this could all have been presented as a normal cinematic documentary with an equivalent ticket price.

As with the exhibition itself, the film/event follows the curators’ decision to present Bowie’s career non-chronologically, though the first pre-recorded insert features novelist Hanif Kureishi (whose TV adaptation of his own The Buddha of Suburbia was soundtracked by Bowie) talking about the post-war London that the one-time David Jones was born into, a city of bombed out buildings and ration books.

We are shown baby pictures, then a framed photograph belonging to a teenage Jones/Bowie of his first musical hero, Little Richard, a mainstream rock star who played with the idea of androgyny long before Bowie chose to do the same.

We hear and see pictures and footage of Bowie as a young man in the mid-1960s taking his first tentative steps on the pop music ladder with R&B bands the Kon-Rads and the King Bees, his early fascination with image and fashion represented by his hand drawn designs of these bands' stage outfits, as well as a hilarious early TV appearance as a spokesman for ‘The Prevention of Cruelty to Long-haired Men’.

These insipient glimpses of ‘David Bowie’ in the making confirm that he always saw his art as being more than about music: art, fashion and a sense of theatre were always a part of who he wanted to be. And the ‘who’ was always in the plural. Even then he had taken to heart the French poet Rimbaud’s dictum 'I is another'.

Fashion plays a major part in both the exhibition and the film/event. The first live studio guest is Japanese fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto, who designed the PVC kimono/bodysuit Bowie wore on an early tour of America, and went on to collaborate with Bowie on many of his Ziggy Stardust costumes. Speaking in halting English, the designer recalls when he first saw Bowie onstage in New York wearing his bodysuit. 'Wow! He’s wearing my design… for ladies!' 

Other live guests of note include Sheffield musician Jarvis Cocker, who speaks eloquently of how people felt that Bowie was 'like an umbrella. He was a safe place for people to find out who they were'. The singer recalls how he would see young men in the early 1970s – inspired by Bowie – wearing glitter on their faces and running the risk of being beaten up for their efforts.

We also get to hear how ‘normal’ fans of Bowie were inspired by him. Many highlight the moment in 1972 when Bowie appeared on Top of the Pops singing ‘Starman’ and – as the singer sang the lines 'I had to phone someone so I picked on you-oh-oh' looking straight into the camera and pointing his finger out into TV land – they all felt he was speaking only to them.

We are given a whistle stop tour of the highlights of a career spanning almost 50 years and counting. Film promos mix with footage of Bowie himself talking about various aspects of his career: from Ziggy through to Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke to ‘the Berlin’ Bowie and beyond.

The music is great, the concert footage exhilarating, the costumes on show, the record designs, handwritten lyric sheets (each looking as if they were written by a different person), ancient synthesisers, storyboards for pop videos – all are fascinating and give a unique insight into the art of David Bowie.

What is missing though is any sense of Bowie the man: his loves, his drug problems, his oftentimes callous disregard for collaborators and band mates as he sloughed off one personality and moved on to his next thing. But this is a hagiography, after all, and this film and the exhibition is not the place for critical discussion.

There is also little time spent on his post-1970s career when, arguably, he lost his ability to capture the zeitgeist and – bar the odd single and album track – stopped being as ‘relevant’ in popular culture.

Mention is made of Bowie’s latest ‘comeback’ with the album The Next Day, which – time will tell – may be only the latest chapter in an unfinished story. As a fan says after viewing the exhibition: 'Who could do all this in a lifetime? And he’s not even dead!'