RIP David Bowie (or, Helping Frances to find her Ha)
Ivan Radford | On 11, Jan 2016
Everyone has a David Bowie moment. That doesn’t mean that everyone knew David Bowie, but it does mean that his reach and influence was wide enough for you to have connected with him. The man was a legend. An icon. An artist. Pick any word and you could argue he was it.
It’s not bad going for a guy who was born David Robert Jones, three of the most generic names you could imagine. But as David grew up in South London, he eventually found fame – not as himself, although Space Oddity was a hit in 1969, but as Ziggy Stardust, his flamboyant alter-ego with shoulder pads as striking as the lightning bolt across his head. (Updated to add: This lightning bolt was introduced in Ziggy’s later reincarnation as Aladdin Sane.)
Why the theatricality? Bowie was a performance artist as much as a musician, someone trained in mime as well as versed in jazz, rock and any other genre you could care to mention. A visit to the V&A Museum’s David Bowie Is exhibition in August 2013 highlighted just how diverse the singer was – in every department. From costume and make-up to rhythm and lyrics, he was a chameleon who repeatedly changed his appearance – but never once to blend in.
His excursions in cinema were appropriately other-worldly, from The Man Who Fell to Earth to The Prestige. Who else could play Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s tale of science and magic, a famous figure whose ideas always seemed not quite of this planet? Or Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicolas Roeg’s seminal sci-fi, an alien but with a relatable humanoid form? (His cameo in Zoolander is memorable precisely because it’s one of the rare times he seemed to play himself.)
He’s just as chameleonic when used as accompaniment, able to slot as easily into Ridley Scott’s The Martian – a witty montage set to Starman, as Matt Damon waits in the sky – as The Life Aquatic, in which Seu Jorge pops up in the background, singing acoustic covers of his songs in Portuguese. Why Bowie songs? We presume it’s because the guy likes them – and why wouldn’t he? Everyone has a Bowie moment. (One of our writers, for example, tells me he played that version of Life on Mars at his wedding.)
Standing in the the final room of the V&A’s exhibition, a series of screens displayed live performances from various concerts, all in synch – a stereo visual and audio experience that, for a brief few minutes, brought all of us visitors together. The usual exhibition trawl paused. People were sitting, leaning, standing, hanging around, all the children boogying to the sound. It felt more like a gig than a museum – just with the crystal globe of the Goblin King in Labyrinth visible in the background.
My own personal David Bowie moment is in Frances Ha, when Greta Gerwig’s Frances dances down the street to Modern Love – a moment I’ve recreated before in real life and can’t wait to do so again. Noah Baumbach’s perfectly crafted moment is an homage to a similar sequence in Leos Carax’s 1986 film Mauvais Sang, but, tellingly, it feels like its own thing. Because that’s what David Bowie Is. Ever standing out against the crowd, he was an artist who taught people it was ok to be different – not by telling them, but by just being really good at being himself, albeit in many, many different forms. Stylish, well-dressed and talented? Why the hell he would be anyone else?
That inspirational example helped to shape sci-fi, electrify cinema and encourage a whole generation of people (and generations to come) to find their own Ziggy, their own Thin White Duke, their own Goblin King (well, maybe without the kidnapping). Oh, and his music was brilliant too.
Everyone has a David Bowie moment. That doesn’t mean that everyone knew David Bowie, but it does mean that he helped them connect with themselves. How fitting, then, that one of his most timeless on-screen moments comes in the middle of a film about a young woman working out her own identity – only to fall flat on her face halfway through. We smile. That’s so Frances, we think.
Main photo: NME