by Michael Deacon / Telegraph
26th May 2013
BBC Two’s David Bowie – Five Years was more celebration than investigation, finds Michael Deacon.
In the early days of his career, David Bowiemade one mistake: opening his mouth. Not to sing – he was pretty good at that – but to speak. Today you look back at TVinterviews with the young Bowie, this supernatural pop being – thin as a cigarette, shop-dummy skin, a smile like broken glass – and you expect to hear a voice sounding somewhere between Satan and Withnail. And instead you hear a voice like a cockney chimney sweep.
Nothing wrong with the voice, per se. It just didn’t match the look. It was like finding out Muhammad Ali spoke like Mickey Mouse.
There was some of the chim-chiminey chim-chiminey in Francis Whately’s film David Bowie – Five Years (BBC Two). But mainly it was made up of the two things Bowie has always been best at, music and image (or, to echo the title of one of his songs, sound and vision).
A 90-minute retrospective about five key (non-consecutive) years in Bowie’s career, stylistically it was a bit like Martin Scorsese’s films about Bob Dylan and George Harrison, No Direction Home and Living in the Material World. In other words, it was not so much a documentary as a cinematic collage, a deftly crafted jumble of clips old and new, chronological without feeling linear. Now a snatch of interview, now a burst of performance, now a peep offstage. No new interviews with Bowie himself; since his comeback in January he’s refused all requests.
The film began with 1971, the year of Bowie’s real breakthrough; then came 1975 (the year of Young Americans), 1977 (both Low and Heroes), 1980 (Scary Monsters) and 1983 (Let’s Dance).
The most important thing the young Bowie understood was that for teenagers pop is not simply music, it’s fantasy. So he made himself fantastical, a one-man freakshow, all strut and pout, grimace and grin, his painted artifice thrillingly at odds with the sullen torpor of everyday provincial life in the Seventies, that ugly brown decade governed by greasy men in greasy specs with greasy hair and greasy suits.
Musically he was fantastical too, restlessly rummaging through his dressing-up box of genres, throwing this and that together to create some outrageous new sonic get-up: prancing swank-rock, sci-fi funk, pantomime soul, undanceable dance. And above each strange synthesis floated lyrics from some jarring dream. “Meet his little hussy with his ghost town approach, her face is sans feature, but she wears a Dali brooch…”
The snippets of old Bowie interviews weren’t always revelatory; mostly they were the kind of clichés yawningly familiar to readers of rock journalism the world over. “I think I wanted to re-evaluate what I did musically,” for example, and “I think [producer Brian] Eno opened up new doors of perception.” The man who could conjure song titles like Moonage Daydream and Lady Grinning Soul didn’t always show the same verbal flair on the chat show host’s sofa. He tended to look as if he’d been enjoying himself too much in the dressing room beforehand.
Still, one line rang true. “I feel like an actor when I’m on stage,” he said, “rather than a rock artist.” An actor is exactly it. Before Bowie, the big rock artists – Elvis, John Lennon, Mick Jagger – took to the stage as exaggerated versions of themselves. But Bowie always seemed to be playing someone else entirely, even when he wasn’t wearing make-up and calling himself a silly name. To many, it made him a bewitching original. To others, however, it made his music hard to warm to, hard to trust. Who was singing here? What did he mean – and did he mean it?
Fans might not have learnt much from Five Years – this was celebration more than investigation – but the footage made it a long and satisfying dip in the bubble-bath of nostalgia. There was a bonus pleasure in being reminded that not only did Bowie have an incongruous speaking voice, but so did his early Seventies bandmates. Wafting around on stage: gold-bloused glamourpusses. Open their mouths: bricklayers from Hull.