Film review: David Bowie is …

David Bowie is no more. When this became known, art house cinemas suddenly scheduled “David Bowie is …” at least three times a week. The Groninger Museum opened its door on a Monday. It is the last stop of a travelling exhibition on David Bowie, created by the V&A complete with the film “David Bowie is …” as accompanying marketing ploy.

Cashing in on someone’s death might raise an eyebrow. The behaviour of museum and art house cinemas raised my two. Having no intention to travel from one EU mini-state to the north of the next one, I settled on viewing the docu-film. For info about the exhibition, scroll down.

David Bowie is posterThe film “David Bowie is …”, created by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to accompany their already highly succesful exhibition “David Bowie is …”, is a marketing ploy. This illustrates how marketing-savvy some internationally renowned museums have become. They not only “lend” their exhibitions to other museums – at a price. They now also use media like film to promote exhibitions to rake in even more money.

Fortunately, at the time the exhibition “David Bowie is …” closed in London and this film was created, nobody realised how ill David Bowie was and that he would die. Fortunately, nobody realised his death would rake in even more money for the V&A and other “stake-holders”. Fortunately, the film dishes out enough interesting facts and surprises, it delights Bowie fans, groupies, folks like me.

Nevertheless: this is a film about an exhibition. It focusses on the exhibition, curators, visitors and what the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw calls “David Bowie scholars” (never realised these exist).

It is a roughly ninety-minute-long, chronologic introduction to the exhibition and the phenomenon David Bowie. Through exhibits, music, videos, photos and other items, one does receive an impression of the many-sided artist and performer, the public figure, his alter-egos. It shows him becoming a mega-star and his highs and lows. It shows how he influenced fans, contemporary artists, present-day bland imitators.

The film opens with a mime artist inviting you into the V&A. Early in the film, it becomes clear why: mime, make-up and coaching helped David Bowie explore and create masks. As with many performers, some of these nearly stifled and suffocated Bowie.

It is fascinating to see the artist who wrote “When I live my Dream” evolve into someone who would one day write “Lazarus” via “Jean Genie”, “Fame”, “Rebel Rebel”, and many other songs – thanks to a breakthrough with “Major Tom”. It is interesting to see how he visualised things, created song texts, created shows – but also reused creations.

It is difficult to understand the impact his behaviour had. Not just on Top of the Pops, but also his use of fashion in his shows. Bowie challenging and breaking most rules must have been hugely liberating for people trying to be true to themselves while having to battle with a straight-laced, black-and-white thinking society.

There is not just his music, song-writing, life shows. The film and exhibition also go into his acting career. Many of his films are now forgotten, though rumour has it “Labyrinth” might be released again and run in cinemas.

This docu-film is an interesting “primer” to the exhibition. However, it could have done with less focus on the two curators, one of whom wears rather silly earrings. A different presentation of various people who knew and worked with Bowie, might also have worked far better.

The film stops with the London exhibition closing down and going on world tour, while curators, visitors, “Bowie scholars” and others take to the stage.  It does not reveal much about the real human being behind all the masks, personas, alter egos who could be just a face in a crowd. This real person who was such a professional performer, he managed to hide his illness from the world and stage-managed his exit for fans.

Fame, fame, fame, fame
What’s your name?

Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now.
(Lines from “Fame” and “Lazarus”, by David Bowie)

Groninger Museum: David Bowie is
Youtube trailer docufilm “David Bowie is …”


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