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16 September 2022

Why we shouldn’t sanctify David Bowie

The new Bowie documentary, Moonage Daydream, is a hagiography that diminishes rather than enhances our understanding of the man and his art.

By Fergal Kinney

Earlier this year, David Bowie’s full back catalogue was sold to Warner Chappell Music in a deal reportedly worth more than £185m. 

“I don’t think there’s any finish line,” the Warner CEO Guy Moot said recently regarding the Bowie catalogue’s commercial possibilities. “This is an acquisition, we own it, and that goes on and on and on.” In New York board-rooms, speculation abounds as to where brand Bowie might journey next: prestige TV, children’s animation, even the Metaverse. Already, the blue melancholy of Bowie’s 1977 futurist classic single “Sound & Vision” has been licensed to the home DIY chain B&Q, in an advert described by Moot as “beautiful” and “classy”.

Moonage Daydream is the bombastic new cinema tribute to Bowie, made by Brett Morgen with the unprecedented cooperation of Bowie’s estate and, crucially, its bountiful archive. But in its uncritical and estate-sanctioned hagiography, the documentary film diminishes, rather than enhances, our understanding of a 20th-century master.

In pop today, the dead are living longer than ever. Baz Luhrmann’s extravagant Elvis biopic has helped reverse that estate’s decades-long decline. Though all four members of Abba remain alive, the success of this year’s Abba Voyage concerts in London raises the possibility of lucrative live shows extending well past an artist’s traditional mortal limits.

In death, Bowie has become a talisman of the meeting point between creativity and commerce. Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys even keeps a book of “Bowie Wisdom” in his upstairs bathroom. Much of this legacy rests on Bowie’s 1970s golden years, the decade during which he blazed a trail from sophisticated avant-pop to cool European modernism via thrusting glam rock and Philadelphia soul.

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The picture after that is typically less understood. His career burned whole decades in the creative wilderness. High points such as The Buddha of Suburbia (1993) were rarities among big-budget misfires, the doomed Tin Machine band project and artless covers albums. Later, flitting between what he perceived to be the commercial and the experimental, his work often satisfied neither. Describing Bowie’s yawning mid-period, the critic Ian Penman wrote of “a triumph of airless busyness over any kind of considered or memorable shape – dozens of weightless surfaces and battling signifiers in search of a missing hook or core”. It was often hard to imagine David Bowie being excited by the work of David Bowie.

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The popular memory of Bowie’s virtues is warped. In 2022 his early gender fluidity is celebrated as pioneering. But he spent much of his career loudly rowing back on any previously expressed sexual ambiguity. “The biggest mistake I ever made was telling that Melody Maker writer that I was bisexual,” Bowie told Rolling Stone in 1983. “Christ, I was so young then. I was experimenting.” For all future interviews, this became the line. Worse still, his U-turn seemed calculated to detoxify his brand as part of a big-dollar pitch to Reagan’s US: openly LGBTQ pop stars did not then break America. “It’s given me people who before would have said, ‘Oh, he’s that red haired faggot, you know, we don’t want that…’” explained Bowie in a 1980s tour programme. “Now they like it. That’s terrific.” Not every queer artist would be lucky enough to use such plausible deniability in that decade. Not every queer artist would survive that decade.

These elements of Bowie’s legacy are too infrequently considered, as are allegations by the child model Lori Mattix that Bowie had sex with her when she was 14 years old. When asked about this, the director Morgen said the film was “consciously not about David Jones and I think what you’re referring to [sexual misconduct] has more to do with David Jones and less to do with Bowie”.

Exploring the more difficult elements of Bowie’s life might help us understand more, not less, about the artist and the cultural climate in which he worked. Bowie’s 1970s cocaine addiction – despite its central role on the 1976 Station to Station album – is often forgotten in the public consciousness, and barely alluded to in the film. Angie Bowie, who had more than a little to do with the story of both Bowie and Jones, having been the singer’s wife throughout the 1970s, is not featured at all. The film perpetuates Bowie’s long-standing sidelining of key collaborators. Musicians including Mick Ronson and Carlos Alomar have complained of devoting years of their life to Bowie’s work for paltry financial remuneration and little serious acknowledgement; Moonage Daydream neglects to mention their involvement in Bowie’s output, nor his collaborator Brian Eno and his tricksy former manager Tony Defries.

Even subjects that Bowie had been happy to discuss are rendered taboo. Bowie wanted the public to know that he recanted his shocking, cocaine-powered 1976 interview with Playboy, during which he declared that he believed “very strongly in fascism” and proselytised about the coming of “a right-wing, totally dictatorial tyranny”. In obscuring the sin, the film also obscures the repentance.

The 2016 release of Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, just two days before his death, became entrenched in popular memory as the culmination of a career perfectly choreographed until the final act. The exact opposite is true. Blackstar is a story of redemption. Following a decade’s silence and the so-so arena rock of his 2013 comeback The Next Day, Bowie finally gets his late-era masterpiece, and the creative decisions are all the more astonishing following the long decades he spent second-guessing and zeitgeist-chasing.

The story of David Bowie is too culturally important to be told with reverence to David Bowie. If we attempt to understand Bowie’s flaws, we might learn something deeper about art and creativity.

[See also: How Ticketmaster’s dynamic pricing “takes advantage” of music fans]

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