by Sam Wollaston / Guardian
27th May 2013
Music documentaries can be quite tedious things, especially if the subject of the documentary isn’t taking part – on account of being dead maybe, or simply too mysterious and enigmatic to be involved. So you’re left with archive clips, which will be frustratingly short for lovers of the music who will want to hear whole songs. Interspersed with the clips there’ll be talk, by people who worked with the subject back in the day. There’ll be stories of good times, hedonism and demonstrations of significant chord changes. If the subject of the film is very famous, the collaborator will maybe show off a little about just how well they knew/know them, personally. And music journalists and cultural commentators will be competitively insightful. You know the genre.
Francis Whately’s film David Bowie – Five Years (BBC2, Sunday) is all of the above. No, don’t stop, more! Of Queen Bitch, Suffragette City, Fame, Golden Years, Young Americans, Ashes to Ashes, even Let’s Dance. They’re all rudely interrupted though. By Rick Wakeman, saying: “I got a call from Dave, he called me directly.” A direct call, eh Rick? He talks us through the piano chord structure of Life on Mars: you think it’s going there, but it’s going here, there’s an unexpected E flat thrown in, only David would do that.
Producer Ken Stott remembers bumping into David in a corridor; guitarist Earl Slick remembers not remembering very much because everyone there was on drugs; drummer Woody Woodmansey remembers David having breakfast, guitarist Carlos Alomar remembers David being white …
And yet this is better than most music documentaries. Aloma’s white memory is adorable. “I didn’t know who David Bowie was, but I did know that this was the whitest man I’d ever seen – I’m not talking white-like-pink, I’m talking about translucent white.” As is his orange one: “And then he had orange hair. I’m not talking about mama’s orange, I’m talking an-orange orange.” Woodmansey’s breakfast memory – “he would eat breakfast as a superstar” – is significant because it’s part of Bowie’s construct, what (the Guardian’s own) John Harris says is his ability “to essay the experience of stardom”. And Rick Wakeman’s unpicking of Life on Mars is fascinating, because it’s Life on Mars and it’s Rick Wakeman (plus I’d show off a bit if Dave had phoned me, directly or otherwise). All the contributors – Camille Paglia(!), Nelson George, Charles Shaar Murray, Brian Eno, Nicholas Roeg, Nile Rodgers and many more – have something interesting to say.
But mainly it’s better because of the subject. The footage – some rare, some unseen – is mesmerising. He’s just so bloody beautiful and extraordinary, every one of him – from fedora-wearing hippy through various aliens, insects, ghosts, etc to the tanned blond yuppie pop star of the Serious Moonlight tour. I love the outtakes of recordings that go wrong – Life on Mars and Queen Bitch – when you see him suddenly crash out of character. His humour too, mischievous and sarcastic, is evident in a hilarious interview with Russell Harty. That’s not to say Bowie doesn’t take himself very seriously: he is controlling and a bit preposterous too.
It’s nicely put together. And though DB is obviously far too mysterious and enigmatic to take part, the gems are strung together using archive audio interview so it sounds as if he’s narrating his own life story. I’d like the songs to have gone on longer, but I can always go and listen to the music, starting, as the film does, with Hunky Dory, moving on to Ziggy Stardust. That’s the bank holiday soundtrack sorted then.