'David Bowie Is': Film Review

David Bowie Is Still - H 2014
AP Images/Invision

David Bowie Is Still - H 2014

Far from the in-depth doc Bowie fans deserve

Curators seek Bowie's inner self through his wardrobe and ephemera

Less a proper film about David Bowie than a tie-in to a traveling exhibition organized by London's Victoria & Albert Museum, David Bowie Is makes an adequate consolation for superfans who can't afford to travel to one of the show's host cities (it opens today at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art), but has the simultaneous effect of causing one to wonder when a serious documentarian will turn a lens on the former Thin White Duke. One-night theatrical screenings across the country should draw a respectable turnout, but a comprehensive photo-stuffed catalogue of the show (packaged, ideally, with a DVD containing uncut video clips) would be more welcome.

Doubling down on a pretty iffy organizing concept, co-directors Hamish Hamilton and Katy Mullan introduce chapters with a variety of names that echo the exhibition's puzzling title, but usually say little about what's to come. "David Bowie is blowing our minds," one heading boasts, as if the whole film wasn't concerned with watching the protean tease do that.

They also stumble when trying to capture the feel of touring through the show, moving their camera through daffy tableaux in which people hold their poses in galleries as if caught in freeze-frame. Also awkward, but more rewarding, are scenes shot in front of a live audience. Here, the occasional guest pops up to say something about Bowie: Jarvis Cocker may be the most famous speaker (Bowie himself doesn't appear), but the most enjoyable is Kansai Yamamoto, the Japanese clothing designer who recalls going to Radio City Music Hall to watch his wares become forever associated with Ziggy Stardust. "I designed these clothes for ladies!" he laughs.

Curators of the show found plenty of fascinating stuff in Bowie's archives, from the framed Little Richard photo kept by young Davy Jones to the drawings the made as a youth of coordinated outfits to be worn by bands he hoped to form. Even at the outset, it seems, he had a showman's instinct for image creation.

Later curiosities include a video showing Bowie demonstrating the Verbicizer, a computer program he helped design that generated William Burroughs-like random texts for inspiration. But the star of the show is wardrobe: We see fans coo over one iconic outfit after another, each draped on a mannequin in an inert pose. Listening to middle-aged men recall what it felt like to see the emerging rock star in dresses and makeup does evoke Bowie's sexually liberating cultural impact fairly well — though Todd Haynes painted that picture quite effectively in Velvet Goldmine.

Production company: Done & Dusted
Directors: Hamish Hamilton, Katy Mullan
Screenwriter: Philip Kerr
Producers: Hamish Hamilton, Katy Mullan, Clare Gough
Executive producers: Steve Lewis, Simon Pizey
Editors: Michael Green, Justin Norris

No rating, 94 minutes