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John Doyle

Portrait of Bowie as icon – but not the full picture Add to ...

I remember it. Dublin on a chilly Saturday afternoon. The sky above slate grey, the rain about to come down. A few people standing outside a record shop on Talbot Street, staring at the window display.

The window held numerous copies of one LP cover. Back then, in 1973, LP covers mattered. They told stories, intrigued people. I was a kid, but even I knew that. The LP cover in the window showed David Bowie’s pale face and shoulders, a lightning flash painted across the right side of the face. It was an eerie image, otherwordly on a grey Dublin street.

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An older fella asked, “Who’s yer man?” The answer: “David Bowie, new album.” The fella said, “I know him. Ziggy Stardust.” The answer: “Well, now he’s Aladdin Sane.” The fella said, “A lad insane. That’s good, very good. He is, you know, insane.”

Today, we are in the midst some sort of David Bowie reverie. He was the subject of a major exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, an exhibition so popular the museum had to extend its opening hours. And the same exhibition is about to open at the Art Gallery of Ontario. (Handily, James Adams previews the exhibition here.) Why the fuss?

David Bowie: Five Years in the Making of an Icon (TMN/Movie Central 9 p.m.) seeks to provide the answers and doesn’t, but offers loads of interesting material about Bowie. Made recently for the BBC by Francis Whately, it attempts to condense Bowie’s career and impact into five neat chapters. We get the evolution of his musical personae and many insights into his working methods with collaborators, through a ton of fascinating archival footage, but not the full picture.

The first key year cited is 1971/72, the Ziggy Stardust period, when Bowie thrust himself into the centre of the glam-rock craze with an entirely contrived version of himself as a doomed rock star, complete with all the necessary iconography. There are interesting comments, found in archives, from the late Mick Ronson, Bowie’s vital guitarist in the period. Bowie himself is heard talking about “using rock ‘n’ roll” rather than entering into it. Culture critic Camille Paglia makes some nutty remarks about Bowie’s self-proclaimed god status.

This is all interesting, but superficial. Missing entirely from the doc is any consideration of the influence of avant-garde art theory on Bowie’s self-actualized personae. It’s no secret that a vast amount of British pop music in the 1970s and 80s was influenced by the theories of Guy Debord and the Situationist International. Particularly rampant was a belief that society’s entertainment is rooted in “the spectacle” and that the spectacle could be constructed, deconstructed and recreated again, over and over. It fuelled the Punk movement.

So, short on theory, but rich in footage and interviews, the program moves quickly through 12 years of Bowie’s career. There’s some illuminating material about Bowie’s immersion in American soul music in the mid-seventies, from which emerged the Young Americans album. Guitarist Carlos Alomar explains how he was skeptical about this white guy’s interest in soul. “I didn’t know who Bowie was. But I did know this was the whitest man I’ve ever seen – translucent white. And he had orange hair. He was thin and weighed about 98 pounds. Weird.” Still, they got along famously, as Bowie did with Luther Vandross and Nile Rogers.

Although it is never said, it appears Bowie is admired as a gracious collaborator, a genuine innovator and enormously hard-working. Brian Eno is eloquent about working with Bowie on the albums Heroes and Scary Monsters and then along comes guitarist Robert Fripp, famously eccentric, to talk very eccentrically about his improvisations on those records.

It all ends with Bowie’s leap into vast commercial success in the mid-1980s. Camille Paglia shows up again to make incomprehensible remarks about The Book of Revelation, of all things. We get the idea that Bowie is a cultural icon and innovator, but for all the enjoyable footage and interviews the approach is superficial.

The full answer to the question, “Who’s yer man?” is probably best found at that exhibition, which is called “David Bowie is.” Just “is,” note you, not “insane.”

Also airing tonight Nashville (ABC, City, 10 p.m.) is one of several notable network shows returning. (Revolution is on NBC, City, 8 p.m. And endlessly Emmy-winning Modern Family returns with an hour-long episode, ABC, City, 9 p.m.) As viewers from last season will know, Nashville is an excellent soap, with lots of great music included.

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