“I am only the person the greatest number of people believe I am,” David Bowie said once, a declaration used as a kind of epigraph for Francis Whately’s hugely enjoyable film about the star. Just lately, the greatest number of people seem to believe that Bowie is the epitome of creative charisma, a Midas of cool who can do no wrong. So it was one of the incidental pleasures of David Bowie – Five Years that it simultaneously satisfied the fan’s desire for occasions of worship while also acknowledging that infallibility is not one of Bowie’s qualities. There were sequences that made the hair on the back of your neck stand up, but also sequences that made your toes curl, most notably an old piece of archive shot in Andy Warhol’s Factory, in which Bowie mimed a self-evisceration that ended with him releasing his still-beating heart to the sky like a dove. “The Laughing Gnome” is a well-known blemish, but on this showing, the unlaughing, gnomic Bowie had his embarrassing moments too.
The five years of the title weren’t consecutive, but moments from the career that reflected the particular nature of his genius, which you might describe as 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent pure nerve, if that didn’t downplay the level of invention that he brought to popular music. But that this was a story of artistic courage was undeniable. Bowie braved his way into stardom, acting what he wanted to be before he actually was it, as you could see in an archive footage of him as Ziggy, performing to a largely empty room as if it was Shea Stadium in meltdown. “It’s funny. He would eat breakfast as a superstar,” recalled Woody Woodmansey, just one of a long roster of collaborators who filled in the story and – exhilaratingly – anatomised the greatness of the greatest hits bar by bar.
The courage wasn’t just a matter of going through an open door first, when no one could say what lay on the other side of it. It involved Bowie repeatedly abandoning a formula for success as soon as he had found it. “The minute you know you’re on safe ground, you’re dead,” he said, in another of the historic remarks that Whately resorted to in the absence of a fresh interview. So as soon as Ziggy started to become in reality what he was in fiction, Bowie laid him to rest and went to New York to record a soul album. And after Young Americans, he moved on again, in a process of perpetual re-invention. It clearly wasn’t without its strains. The footage of Bowie being interviewed on The Dick Cavett Show was regularly interrupted by a snorkelling sniff that hinted at pharmaceutical excess, but then Bowie fed the bleakness of that time into another great record, sufficiently ahead of its time to leave even his admirers struggling to catch up. Charles Shaar Murray read out his condescending and dismissive NME review of the album Low with a rueful, what-was-I-thinking shrug of embarrassment. I don’t know whether Bowie will watch, but if he does, I think he’ll relish that moment, and admire the craft with which Whately constructed his film.
Clare Balding’s Secrets of a Suffragette saw Britain’s busiest presenter examining the death of Emily Davison at the 1913 Derby. Balding probably gets first refusal on every documentary pitched just now, but this one was obviously close to her heart, not only because she comes of racing stock but because she was brought up by a man who still appears to think that female suffrage was a reckless innovation. Her film offered a decent beginner’s history of the suffrage movement and pretty convincing forensic proof that martyrdom wasn’t actually Davison’s goal. It suited the establishment to depict her as a lunatic, but she was actually just a fatally determined protester. And in her own quiet way Balding carries her banner onwards.
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