Monday, September 6, 2010

Cracked Actor

Cracked Actor is a 1974 BBC documentary about David Bowie, directed by Alan Yentob, who would later go on to be the head of BBC. In this era it would be easy to re-title it 'Cracked-Out Actor,' but to do so would be to undermine the significance and seriousness of the film. Bowie appears emaciated and coked-out of his head for the most part, yet the film captures him in the midst of one of the great creative runs in all of rock music. The quality of the footage isn't always perfect, but it's a film that treats its subject with the respect due a serious artist, at a time when others dismissed him as nothing more than a debauched music curio (see opening segment, above).

One thing that makes the film so fascinating is that it captures an artist in transition. Of course, there was no other way to capture the restless creative pursuits of Bowie at the time - 'in transition' was his natural state. 
The documentary was made towards the end of the most highly theatric tour Bowie ever undertook.  Having killed-off his Ziggy Stardust persona, worked through Alladin Sane (essentially, Ziggy sees America), Bowie wrote  Diamond Dogs, an album heavily influenced by George Orwell's 1984. For a time, he tried to create a stage-show built around Diamond Dogs, based on 1984 - an idea that was nixed when Orwell's heirs refused to grant permission. Nonetheless, he staged perhaps the most elaborately theatrical show that rock has seen. Unfortunately, the footage in this documentary is the only professionally shot footage of the tour that exists.

Despite the complexity of the stage-show, before tour's end Bowie was already moving on. The latter part of the tour - captured here - became known as 'The Philly Dogs Tour.' Bowie stripped the show of its more elaborate set-pieces and came under the spell of American Soul music. There are clips in the last part of this documentary that show Bowie working out backing tracks with Cherry Vanilla and a young Luther Vandros, sessions that would show up on the Young Americans album.

In the late 90s I worked at a restaurant in LA, and one morning Luther Vandros was the first customer in through the door. We were practically the only people in the place, and so with nothing but time to kill I asked him about working with Bowie on those sessions, figuring at the very least, it was a different line of questioning than the one he was used to. One of the things he told me was that Bowie heard him singing at a club and asked him to come to the studio, help, raise the vocals - and at the time Luther was still attending school at Hollywood High. He shares a writing credit on the song Fascination which, before Bowie got hold of it, had a working title of 'Funky Music (Is a Part of Me).

Part of the subject here is Bowie's discovery of America - and in particular,  Los Angeles. It's a place he feels malevolent towards, and apparently, already did even then. Bowie has stated that his coke habit took him deep towards psychosis during his time in LA, and only only over a couple of difficult years in Berlin did he free himself of it. The work that emerged there - Low, Heroes - is, to my mind, as bold and brave and beautiful, as innovative, as anything in music in the 'rock' era - so much so that it's scarcely a part of 'rock' at all, but rather, exists on its outer fringes.

Another theme that emerges, and one that would take Bowie years to work through, is the question of 'multiple selves,' as explored through his need to create and inhabit characters. Mental illness runs through Bowie's family, reference towards which are ripe throughout his work. Bowie's insistence on changing his creative shape, altering his physical appearance, always shifting our perceptions of him, is key among things that drew me to his work, influenced my thought.

Watching this outstanding film again reminded me how for a long time, playing with people's expectations was something I considered a personal obligation. To present oneself  consistently was to present oneself as too easily understood, too easily known, I felt. Or, as Oscar Wilde had it, 'Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.'

   In the short term it's a superficial outlook, no doubt. In the long term however, it has to do with creating a a non-linear path, pursuing a philosophy of personal exploration and evolution. More on this in the next post...

   In the meantime, more of my musings on Bowie's Philly Dogs Tour can be found in a review marking the re-issue of David Live, written for Popmatters a few years ago: Masterpiece Theatre: David Live

No comments: