Andy Polaris reviews the new BBC documentary
David Bowie: Finding Fame
The much anticipated third in a series of documentaries examining the life and times of David Bowie was shown on BBC TV on Saturday almost 44 years to the date of the influential Alan Yentob’s ‘Cracked Actor’ which, along with D A Pennebaker’s ‘Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars’, has become sacred footage of his life on the road.
There is an insatiable appetite for archive material and Francis Whately’s ‘Finding Fame’ offers fascinating glimpses into the pop icon’s long and often disappointing attempts to break into the arts during a decade of trying. We see interviews with former band members, lovers, producers and a family member I’d never known about – a cousin whose family resemblance was all too evident. Such new insights illuminated this final instalment that starts in the mid-Sixties.
I came away admiring Bowie more as an artist due to his single-minded pursuit to achieve his goal and establish a career in the arts. Eleven years (which brought massive cultural changes generally) and nine different bands failed to launch his career. With such limited rewards most people would have fallen at the second or third hurdle and contemplated a different choice of career. A lot of the bands I had heard of, but the film surprised me by exhuming the music of Riot Squad (a name sounding more like a later oi/skinhead band) where he spent eight weeks as their singer in 1967.
Bowie learned quickly to jettison anyone or thing that stood in the way of his mission and made sure that he was front and centre of the action. Early associates talk of how he was the driving force behind stage performances, style and presentation and how to stand out from the crowd. Asking straight band members to wear make-up, paint flowers on their faces and add the Mary Poppins song ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’ to their set were early indicators of originality you wouldn’t find in run of the mill Mod copyists.
I had bought a re-issue of ‘Do Anything You Say /Dig Everything’ produced by composer Tony Hatch in the mid-Seventies, but written by Bowie in 1966 while fronting The Buzz. You do get the feeling from the ex-band members that they came a poor second to Bowie’s ambition but in retrospect are happy to be part of his trajectory, however brief the connection.
Women and gay men played an important role in harnessing his creative image and style with Lindsay Kemp, Angie Bowie, Hermione Farthingale and Freddie Burretti all crucial in different ways to him as an artist and performer. Of course there are others who came later. Whately’s biopic marks the first time I can remember hearing about the inspiration for ‘Letter to Hermione’ (a beautiful song on ‘Space Oddity’) in a filmed interview where his former girlfriend talks candidly about their love affair and the aftermath of their break-up. In a rare moment of personal confession it reveals the crushing effect it had on David at the time and he wanted her to forever realise the hurt.
Lindsay Kemp admitted that he cringed when he saw Bowie’s mime performance but nevertheless worked with him on ‘Pierrot in Turquoise’ in 1968 when they became lovers – he was, I think, instrumental in Bowie’s evolution as a stage performer.
Surprisingly, the film ignored Freddie Burretti,* his extraordinary gay fashion designer who made a vital contribution to his image and style that evolved into Ziggy. As a kindred spirit no longer with us, we saw him only at centre of that great photo with Bowie and Angie in 1971 at Haddon Hall, Beckenham in Kent. Angie Bowie was mentioned only in passing and her absence is hard to justify, although it might be possible that she refused permission to be involved. A rift had excluded her from his story for decades, despite blood ties: the fact that they were married and had a son in 1971 was given short shrift by this film. That’s a shame as her tastes and influence play a critical role in his work during their lives together in this important early phase. Her voice would have embellished the growing pains and furious songwriting that went on to create those cherished first albums.
Bowie’s ability to collaborate with great musicians on narrative-driven songs are the reason I, like many others, retraced his early steps to discover those first albums once Ziggy had finally changed his fortune. From ‘Images’ (1966), ‘The World of David Bowie’ (1970), and the more impressive ‘Man Who Sold The World’ (1970) and ‘Hunky Dory’ (1971), and especially with his chart single ‘Space Oddity’ (1969), Bowie’s stature grew as both writer and performer.
I recently watched the documentary ‘Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock’ based on photographer Mick Rock who created some beautiful iconic photos of Bowie, including the flame-haired androgyny of the ‘Space Oddity’ sleeve and beyond. The photographer talks about the fringe arts and drag scene that had them playing with camp and wearing make-up and kissing boys in public as he documented life in the Bowie inner circle, while watching the transformation from within.
‘Save Me From Suburbia’ is real. Despite Bowie’s modest homes, the stifling conformity of suburbia and a rather cold detached home life propelled him to abandon suburban boredom for the unpredictable urban promise of adventure. We are treated to his cousin Kristina Amadeus recalling how his mother’s approval was something he never appeared to win and Dana Gillespie, a fellow musician, noticed the lack of warmth on a rare visit to the family home, one of which we were given a peek inside, now seeming to be the exact opposite of his experience growing up.
Looking back in this documentary it’s clear that the commercial failures were important lessons learnt, although I’m sure a major source of frustration. The success of ‘Space Oddity’ as a single brought the first glimmer of his potential by capturing the zeitgeist of the Moon landing. His audio message during his 1970 set at Glastonbury illustrated his relief at getting some positive feedback from a live audience after years of lukewarm receptions – the harsh criticism from the BBC radio board following his first audition for them had been a glaring example. However others did recognise his promise and these nods of encouragement must have spurred him to continue his relentless path to eventual stardom. Evidently, it can take more than a decade to become an overnight success. Fame fame fame / What’s your name?
The three crucial films documenting
Bowie’s genesis and rise to stardom
‘Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story’ (2017, 102mins), directed by Jon Brewer and written by Scott Rowley (see trailer above)
❏ A documentary about the life and work of the late Michael “Mick” Ronson, the guitarist, songwriter, producer and arranger who, in the early part of his career, performed with David Bowie as one of the Spiders from Mars. This film represents a great slice of history, not included in the new Whately bio-doc, about how Bowie and Ronson met and worked. Angie Bowie is interviewed and the film narrated by both her and David.
‘Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock’ (2016, 98mins), directed by Barney Clay and featuring photographer Mick Rock
❏ A joyride that delves deep into the mind of rock and roll’s legendary photographer Mick Rock, from the glam-rock shimmer of London to the snarl of NYC punk, and deep into the new millennium. He shot iconic images of David Bowie, Syd Barrett, Blondie, Queen, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop.
‘Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars’ (1973, 90mins), directed by D A Pennebaker
❏ His 3 July 1973 concert at the Hammersmith Odeon was to be David Bowie’s last concert with the Ziggy persona and the Spiders from Mars, when to general shock he famously announced his “retirement” in the closing moments. The live footage contains classic numbers such as ‘Suffragette City’, ‘All The Young Dudes’, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, a Lou Reed cover and a Rolling Stones cover.
Associated sources for completing
a picture of the young Bowie
* ‘Starman: The Man Who Sewed the World’, directed by Lee Scriven (previewed 2015)
❏ Whatever happened to Scriven’s promising feature film documenting Bowie’s intimate relationship with Freddie Burretti, his designer and inspiration for four years from 1970, and containing rare footage? Read my 2015 review via the link.
‘Haddon Hall: When David Invented Bowie’ (2017, 144 pages), graphic novel by Nejib, published by SelfMadeHero
❏ A glam star is born. David Bowie’s early golden years are vibrantly retold in a bold biography by the Tunisian-born Néjib, a Paris-based graphic designer and comics artist. Read The Guardian review of his book.