Judge William Lee says he's hunky dor, even if he's feeling like an oddity.
"I'm going to become a huge rock star. Next time you see me, I'll be totally different."—David Bowie, 1971
For as long as I've listened to music, there has been David Bowie. As I was growing up and discovering my tastes in the 1980s, bands fell in and out of favor every few weeks. There was something different about Bowie though, whose tunes had a distinct quality all their own and every hit sounded like it was one for the ages. The artist changed with the times so he always remained relevant. To my mind, Bowie has always been there fully formed and timeless. The documentary David Bowie: The Calm Before the Storm turns back the clock to Bowie's early years as a solo artist. The DVD is a satisfying retrospective for long time fans with a wealth of background knowledge for those that aren't well versed with the musical icon's early career.
A note on the back cover states, "this film is not authorized by David Bowie, his management or record company." There are no new interviews with the Thin White Duke. Instead, the film uses old and recent interviews with his collaborators and various music and pop culture journalists to tell the story behind the music. The attitude of the film is admiring but it avoids the breathless fawning that might have reduced this to a puff piece. Old photographs show struggling musician David Jones with bands the Mannish Boys and the Lower Third. There's even a clip of David performing on an ice cream commercial. The film stays focused on Bowie's musical career, steering clear of celebrity gossip and well worn details of his personal life.
Bowie's first four albums are put under the spotlight in David Bowie: The Calm Before the Storm. The debut David Bowie is sampled only long enough to give us a taste of his musical style. A little more time is spent on the second album Space Oddity, most significantly with comments from guitarist and harmony vocalist John Hutchinson, who often worked with Bowie in those years. With the next two albums, The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory, the film settles into longer analyses of the music. The pop culture critics talk about the reactions to these works and explain the inspiration behind some of the songs. This is the best part of the film as commentators talk about what the songs are really about. To illustrate some of the statements, we also hear other artists' works that influenced a Bowie song and see clips of other bands borrowing a page from Bowie. A short sampling of Nirvana's cover of "The Man Who Sold the World" is a treat. More vague is use of footage from movies The Third Man and Metropolis as though they were the visuals for music videos. My guess is that Bowie wouldn't have simply repurposed lengthy clips from familiar movies for his music videos and the footage appearing here is just a too on-the-nose illustration by the filmmakers.
The running time of 65 minutes is about right for examining these four albums. The film states the scope of its focus in the title but it still feels a little disappointing that it ends just before things get really interesting. The interviews hint at Bowie's next persona, however, Ziggy Stardust is beyond this film's jurisdiction.
The DVD earns satisfactory technical marks with its clean and well-lit video footage for the many talking head interviews. Archival footage and photos are also decently reproduced though the quality varies somewhat with the age of the material. I prefer to see a slightly worn film clip of a performance of "Rubber Band" than no clip at all. The stereo audio works fine for this documentary with clear dialogue from all interview participants. No songs are featured in their entirety.
There are just a handful of extras on the disc. An extended interview with Kris Needs titled "The Birth of Ziggy" (4:00) hears his memory of seeing Bowie invent the persona that would catapult him to superstar fame. An interactive quiz about Bowie challenges you with 25 questions. Text screens provide the biographies of the 11 contributors that were featured in interviews.
The talking head format gets tiresome but the interviews bring to light some interesting observations about the music and memories of the man. Fans who know all there is to know about Bowie's early career can safely skip this DVD if they have no need for short clips of performances and proto-music videos of the era. Those who want to see a retrospective review of those first albums will be satisfied with the disc even though it's not endorsed by Bowie. Definitely worth a rental to discover the albums that should be in your collection.
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