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Hooked to the silver screen

Hooked to the silver screen

Moonage Daydream is an extraordinary, kaleidoscopic voyage through the mind and art of David Bowie

Sheer audacity was such an important part of it; of the whole phenomenon. Brett Morgen’s stunning documentary Moonage Daydream (Imax theatres, 16 September; general release 23 September) opens with a portentous quotation from David Bowie in 2002, riffing for all he was worth on Nietzsche’s aphorism that “God is dead… and we have killed him.” 

And you think: how did he always get away with it? How did David Jones, the Man who fell to Earth from Bromley pull it off? And then you remember that the song from which the film takes its title begins with the declaration: “I’m an alligator.” Epic chutzpah was always the cheeky heart of Bowie’s soaring ambition, play-acting and tap dance with profundity.

David Bowie photographed in 1966, when he went by the stage name of Davy Jones

To be the first filmmaker allowed full and official access to the Bowie estate (sold in its entirety to Warner Chappell Music in January for an estimated $250 million) and an archive that includes five million items must have been daunting indeed; and it helps that this is not Morgen’s first rodeo. His movie on the film mogul Robert Evans, The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002) is a modern classic, while Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015) is the best documentary to date on the Nirvana frontman.

No director approaching the subject of Bowie’s life and work could possibly hope to be comprehensive. Morgen, to brilliant effect, chooses the different path of maximalism: which is to say that, from the opening minutes, and the strains of ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ from the underrated 1995 album, Outside, he takes us on an intergalactic, sometimes psychedelic voyage through Bowie’s life, imagination and artistic universe.

Like the eponymous Starman, the director knows he’s going to “blow our minds”, and is delighted to do so. Moonscapes, wild colour washes, jump cuts, interspliced footage, leaps across space and time: we are bombarded with all of it in an experience that is intended to make a dazzled Major Tom of each and every one of us.

Morgen also avoids all the tired narrative arcs about Bowie: that his genius was to be found in his mutability, in his persistent reinvention from Ziggy Stardust to Philadelphia soul singer to the Thin White Duke; or that the heart of the matter was his terror of hereditary mental illness, a terror personified in his schizophrenic half brother Terry Burns (a wildly speculative theory that cannot survive a reading of Dylan Jones’s David Bowie: A Life, by far the best biography of the musician); or, most egregriously, that Bowie got boring when he got sober and found true love with his second wife, Iman.

You only have to listen to his final album, the jazz-influenced Blackstar, released two days before his death in January 2016, to realise how absurd that particular claim is. In his final months, he was also working on Lazarus, a stage musical inspired by Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976); returning to the art form that, in his teens, he had imagined would be his vocation.

Michael C Hall and Sophie Anne Caruso in David Bowie and Enda Walsh’s Lazarus directed by Ivo van Hove at the Kings Cross Theatre, 2016

And watch this 1999 Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman, in which Bowie predicts with uncanny accuracy the impact of the digital revolution: “I think the potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable,” he says, a full five years before Facebook was invented. When a sceptical Paxman argues that the web is merely a tool, Bowie replies that it is an alien life form” that “is going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.”

Instead of retreading old paths, Morgen addresses the greater subject of Bowie as an artist, and his evolving notion of what art was, and what, if anything, it was for. To his credit, he ditches entirely the standard talking heads format of the rock documentary, preferring “show” to “tell”. 

Naturally, we hear plenty from Bowie himself, and see images of him that have rarely or never before been used. Especially powerful is footage shot by D.A. Pennebaker when he was making Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1979) and from Gerry Troyna’s obscure Ricochet (1984) which shows blonde Eighties Bowie wandering spectrally through Asia: queuing solo at Bangkok airport, or visiting a Javanese musical group. 

What Morgen captures best is Bowie’s omnivorous, insatiable appetite as a collector, curator and synthesiser of art. His hinterland was positively planet-sized, his artistic erudition prodigious. As he put it in a 1999 commencement address at Berklee College of Music in Boston, he had been “on a crusade to change the kind of information that rock music contained” (on this and many other aspects of his cultural significance, try Paul Morley’s The Age of Bowie: How David Bowie Made a World of Difference).

As he says in a clip from Alan Yentob’s 1975 BBC documentary Cracked Actor that is included by Morgen: “There’s a fly floating around in my milk. There is a foreign body in it, you see. And it’s getting a lot of milk. That’s kind of how I felt. A foreign body. And I couldn’t help but soak it up.” 

David Bowie photographed by Masayoshi Sukita for RCA in 1976

On that occasion, he was talking about American culture. More generally, his work was (and is) a gateway to Jacques Brel, Kabuki theatre, Jean Genet, William Burroughs, John Coltrane, Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, the mime of Lindsay Kemp, À rebours and Joris-Karl Huysmans, Jack Kerouac, and a thousand other influences.

Moonage Daydream honours this with a wealth of cut-in cinematic references – to F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Buster Keaton (very important to Bowie), Nagisa Ōshima (in whose Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence he starred), Stanley Kubrick, Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) and Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner (1982).

As the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher put it in 2013: “Bowie’s serial passage through personae, concepts and collaborators only telegraphed what is always the case: that the artist is synthesizer and curator of forces and ideas.”

Rutger Hauer in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, 1982

That said, the purpose of this eclectic cultural blizzard was never to intimidate the listener or the audience. As Bowie says in the movie: “It was a pudding of ideas”. Any source would do, however cerebral or trashy, as long as it contributed to something new or exciting: “We were creating the 20th Century; everything is rubbish, and all rubbish is wonderful”. 

Nor was the primary purpose of this joyous mash-up to arrive at an intellectual destination. As Bowie recalls of his early fascination with Fats Domino, it was the very fact that he couldn’t pick out the lyrics that made the legend of New Orleans so mesmerising. Mystery was the thrill. It was imperative, too, to look beyond cultural comfort: “If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area.”

Brigitte Helm in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, 1926

Though he freely admitted to fickle experimentation with different religious teachings and secular philosophies, Bowie’s real insight was that art does not deliver pat answers to life’s great questions. It could identify patterns and sources of pleasure. It was a way of coming to terms with and embracing transience. And – far from imposing order on the universe – it had the capacity to help us reconcile ourselves to the opposite: “our refusal to accept chaos… [is] one of the biggest mistakes we’ve made.”

At a moment of national mourning of a different kind, it is striking to reflect how deeply many people, all over the world, still grieve over the loss of Bowie, more than six years after his death aged 69. It is a measure of his abiding significance and its breadth that he defies all attempts at categorisation, or glib analysis. 

Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, 1976

What Moonage Daydream shows beyond doubt is that he was never a nihilist; that there is a difference between the trickster and the cynic; and that when the Starman “told us not to blow it/ ‘Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile” he was speaking for the singer, too. 

As Bowie put it: “It’s what you do in life that’s important. Not how much time you have.” You leave the movie house marvelling afresh at how much he did, its continuing importance, humming the tunes as you walk out into the moonlight, the serious moonlight.

Read more

The final bow

by Zelda Perkins

They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes. In 2019, Zelda Perkins wrote for Tortoise about how she met hers – and produced the musical he staged in his dying days.

Read more

Then we were Ziggy’s band

by Martin Samuel

David Bowie became Starman in search of a hit and launched a space odyssey that has lasted 50 years. Martin Samuel sees no end to its influence.

Here are this week’s recommendations.

Watch

Santo (Netflix, 16 September)

Imagine a manhunt for a villain who is half-Charles Manson, half-Pablo Escobar; or a thriller series that draws upon the American gothic of True Detective Season One (2014) as much as the narco-drama of, say, Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015).

This will give you at least a flavour of this remarkable new Spanish-Brazilian production by Netflix, which – across six episodes – follows Brazilian cop Ernesto Cardona (Bruno Gagliasso) as he is teamed with Spanish police inspector Miguel Millán (Raúl Arévalo) in pursuit of the legendary drug trafficker known only as “Santo”.

This is not easy television, in two senses: first, it deals with gruesome cult practices that are not for the faint-hearted. Santo and his followers identify with “Iku”, traditionally the manifestation of death in the Yoruba religion, and their rituals are terrible. 

Secondly: the series creator Carlos López and director Vicente Amorim have high expectations of the viewer’s intelligence and attention to detail – jumping across time, and from dream to reality without warning. We see Millán taking bribes, and Cardona going undercover, but it often takes a while for the precise chronology to become clear; ditto the partition between drug-induced hallucination and real life. The series is also full of references to classic shows and movies, including Apocalypse Now (1979) and Abel Ferrara’s original Bad Lieutenant (1992).

Yet it is absolutely worth making the effort. The two lead actors are superb, as are Greta Fernández as Susi, Millán’s exasperated partner, and Victoria Guerra as Bárbara, Santo’s drug-addled mistress who speaks in mystical riddles but has the apparent sense to escape with Cardona.

The final reveal is also among the very best of recent years, and should impress fans of The Usual Suspects (1995) as a true “Keyser Söze” moment. One of the finest prestige television shows of 2022.

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song (selected cinemas, 16 September)

Inspired by Alan Light’s wonderful book, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & The Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” (2012), this fascinating documentary directed by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine is a cinematic biography of a song that has burrowed its way into collective culture like few others.

Cohen, the enigmatic poet, philosopher and minstrel, has always been a tempting subject for documentary makers (check out Nick Broomfield’s Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love for a very different approach to his life). Geller and Goldfine, who are married, took their time in exploring his legacy through the lens of ‘Hallelujah’, a song that did not appear on vinyl until the album Various Positions (1984), after many years of composition that involved between 150 and 180 verses.

The singer-songwriter, who died in 2016, also performed two versions – one sacred, one secular – which confused some fans but encapsulated the song’s oscillation between the erotic and the sublime. In a further twist, it was not Cohen himself that truly made ‘Hallelujah’ famous but John Cale and the late Jeff Buckley (the latter version given rocket boosters by this scene from Season Three of The West Wing).

In sharp contrast to Bob Dylan, Cohen believed that perspiration matters more than inspiration in the creative process (“It’s all sweat”). He reflected drily upon the fact that “I have a huge posthumous career ahead of me.” But – in a similar spirit of diligence – Geller and Goldfine have persisted for years in their quest to do justice to his work, gaining unprecedented access to his archive and to a remarkable series of taped interviews by Larry “Ratso” Sloman. The fruits of their efforts are now on screen to be enjoyed by anyone remotely interested in how great art comes into existence.

Breathless (video on demand)

What better way of paying tribute to Jean-Luc Godard, who died on Tuesday aged 91, than to watch (or rewatch) the movie that made him famous? Sixty-two years after its release, À Bout de Souffle is still amazingly fresh and sparkles with youth, radicalism and cinematic daring.

Though the French Nouvelle Vague was officially launched by François Truffaut’s conquest of Cannes in 1959 with The 400 Blows, it was Godard’s movie that turned an artistic shift into a global phenomenon. Worth noting, too, that the director made use of an original story by Truffaut and had none other than Claude Chabrol as his production designer – as well as Raoul Coutard’s ground-breaking cinematography.

From the first shot of Jean-Paul Belmondo, still only 26, smoking performatively and doing his best impression of Bogart, the film is a study in cool. And not only cool, but moral chilliness: Belmondo’s Michel Poiccard (AKA Laszlo Kovacs) is utterly indifferent to death or to the human consequences of his crooked life. 

We never doubt that he is obsessed by Jean Seberg’s Patricia Franchini – watch him beside her as she walks down the Champs-Élysées crying out “New York Herald Tribune!” – but she is right to doubt the sincerity of his relentless claims that he loves her. They have fun, but there is emptiness in everything that they do and say; hipness matched by hollowness.

They both know it (as David Thomson writes: “The two are like comic-book icons”). Michel doesn’t care but the movie’s mystery is whether or not Patricia – who says she is pregnant – does. In bed, she quotes William Faulkner’s Wild Palms: “Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.” Michel scoffs at this: “Grief’s a compromise. l want all or nothing.” The brilliance of the scene – an augury of the astonishing cinematic career to come – is that Godard doesn’t make the choice for us.


Read

Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What To Do About It – Richard V. Reeves (Swift)

In what feels like a different era, Richard Reeves was Nick Clegg’s impressive and cerebral director of strategy in the coalition government, and the author of a fine biography of John Stuart Mill

Now based in Tennessee and Washington, D.C, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, he has already published an important book on middle class privilege, Dream Hoarders (2017). But when he revealed to friends and colleagues his next subject, he was urged to be cautious. As he writes: “In the current political climate, highlighting the problems of boys and men is seen as a perilous undertaking.”

But that, Reeves argues, is the whole problem. The subject is now captive to the culture wars – in which he declares himself “a conscientious objector” – and “[t]he Left tells men, ‘Be More like your sister.’ The Right says. ‘Be more like your father.’ Neither invocation is helpful. What is needed is a positive vision of masculinity that is compatible with gender equality.”

And he is surely right that we should be able to “hold two thoughts in our heads at once.” Acknowledge and address, say, the gender pay gap, the horrors of domestic violence, and the undermining of women’s reproductive rights; while also taking account of the fact that, in the US, for every 100 degrees awarded to women, only 74 are awarded to men; that one in five fathers do not live with their children; and that men account for two out of three “deaths of despair” either from suicide or overdose.

A particular strength of the book is its emphasis upon practical solutions rather than ideology. Hence, Reeves argues (for instance) that boys need an extra year of preschool teaching; that more men are needed in HEAL occupations (health, education, administration, and literacy); and that fatherhood needs to be completely rebooted, with equal and independent parental leave; modernisation of the child support system; and father-friendly employment opportunities.

In under 200 pages, he does much to detoxify a debate that is badly needed, envisaging “a world where mothers don’t need men, but children still need their dads”. A brave and important book.

All the Broken Places – John Boyne (Doubleday) 

“After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric:” so Theodor Adorno famously declared in 1949. He meant that, after the horror of the concentration camps, the nuances, ambiguities and ironies of creative writing were a secular sacrilege.

And yet I recall vividly a conversation with the late Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks when Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was released in 1993. The decay of human remains – especially hair bearing traces of poison gas – and the dying out of Holocaust survivors meant, he said, that fiction, drama and art would now have to take on some of the work, to ensure that the Shoah remained at the very centre of culture and memory.

John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006), which told the story of Bruno, the nine-year-old son of the commandant of Auschwitz, was a worldwide bestseller, turned into a successful movie two years later. In this sequel – a book, he writes in the Author’s Note, that he has been planning for some time – he tells the tale of the boy’s sister, Gretel, who is now aged 91, living as Mrs Fernsby in a mansion block in London and concealing her terrible past.

Like Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader (1995), All the Broken Places explores the fate of the guilty – and Boyne leaves us in no doubt that Gretel is guilty. Yes, she was only twelve, says a lover to whom she admits the truth, but that’s “old enough to know the difference between freedom and imprisonment… Between hunger and starvation. Between life and death and right and wrong.” A former member of the French Resistance denounces her as “the devil’s daughter”. Over the years, she frequently wishes herself dead, sometimes simply seeking release; at other moments because she thinks that death is precisely what she deserves.

Into the apartment below her moves a family in which the father is violently abusive to his wife and son – and it is upon the moral challenge posed by this development that the book’s success or failure hinges. Gretel feels driven to act. But will she? And if she does, will her intervention be no more than a bogus, laughably asymmetrical quest for atonement and unearned self-forgiveness? 

This will – and should – be a controversial book. But, as Boyne writes: “For all the mistakes in her life, for all her complicity in evil, and for all her regrets, I believe that Gretel’s story is also worth telling.” What is not in doubt is that he tells it very well.

You’ve Been Played: How Corporations, Governments and Schools Use Games to Control Us All – Adrian Hon (Swift)

Since the great Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture appeared in 1938, the meaning of games and their deeper significance to the organisation of society has been one of perennial scholarly interest.

Naturally, this fascination has been deepened, broadened and intensified by the digital revolution and, in his excellent new book, Adrian Hon, a neuroscientist and games developer, shows how profound has been the impact of “gamification”: the use of game design principles for nongame purposes.

This embraces all manner of cultural signals and phenomena – from leaderboards, likes, and badges, to challenges to exhausted Uber drivers, a virtual dragon scorching across the screens of warehouse employees packing boxes, and the ubiquity of in-app purchases. Game culture, writes Hon, is what holy indulgences were to the medieval church: a way of keeping us permanently on our toes and subject to scrutiny. 

As he puts it: “The modern combination of networked surveillance technology and entertainment has made gamification both alluring and inescapable… It denies us the dignity of possessing intrinsic motivation and it forces us to prove our worth through productive deeds”.

In this sense, the video game we play on our phones bears uncomfortable affinities with the Chinese social credit system: gamification for 1.4 billion people. Hon would like to live in a world in which “we can sustain our faith in each other without points and badges”, and has intelligent suggestions about curbing the worst excesses of gamification – correctly conscious that the challenge is formidable, and getting more so with each passing month.


Listen

age/sex/location – Ari Lennox

Once in a while, a truly exceptional R&B artist comes along – a Randy Crawford, Mary J. Blige, or Alicia Keys – and Ari Lennox is one such performer. 

After the promise of her debut album Shea Butter Baby (2019), this is not entirely surprising. But age/sex/location is in a different league to its predecessor, not least because Lennox’s voice has matured to a formidable range and delicacy of touch.

There are entertaining duos amongst the 12 tracks, notably the playful ‘Boy Bye’, featuring Lucky Daye, and ‘Queen Space’ with Summer Walker, but the point and purpose of the album is to showcase an extraordinary vocal talent (for which listen, especially, to ‘Pressure’ and ‘Hoodie’).

The list of high-class producers involved in the album – including Elite, Jermaine Dupri, Organized Noize, Cardiak and Slim Wav – tells you all you need to know about Lennox’s rising star. By the end of the album, you’ll want to want to listen to it again, but also to hear this remarkable singer perform live; which, one hopes, will be possible in 2023.

Tristan – Igor Levit

No faulting the Russian-German virtuoso pianist for the sheer ambition of this double album project. In the hands (literally) of a less confident and brilliant performer, Tristan might have been a disaster. That it is so compellingly successful is a tribute to the talent and creative grip of Igor Levit, hailed by the New York Times as one of the “most important artists of his generation”.

Mischievously, he begins with Liszt’s familiar Liebestraum No. 3 in A-flat major. But then, he accelerates at warp speed from 1850 to 1973, and Hans Werner Henze’s six-movement orchestral work, Tristan – an often discordant, highly challenging, 50-minute tribute to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde by an avowedly Marxist composer. Accompanied by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in collaboration with conductor Franz-Welser Möst, Levit knows he is taking a risk – but the gamble pays off, so powerful, unsettling and thought-provoking is the consequent performance.

Of the remaining tracks, I was especially enchanted by the arrangement by Zoltan Kocsis of the prelude to Act One of Wagner’s great opera, which Levit renders with precision, passion and grace.

When the Lights Go – Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs

Ten years have passed since Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs – AKA Orlando Higginbottom – released his acclaimed debut album Trouble. Busy as a producer and DJ, and based in LA, TEED accumulated a hundred new tracks which he finally divided into three categories: “hopeful”, “feverish and anxious”, and “straight up sad shit”.

Thematically speaking, the 17 that made the cut and have ended up on When the Lights Go, are mostly melancholic, introspective and, in a couple of cases, downright dystopian. On the haunting ‘Blood on the Snow’, the 36-year-old singer-songwriter weighs his longing for a child against his fear of climate catastrophe. “How much longer before the dam begins to break?/ Crashing water, fill my lungs and levitate”. And then: “I want her more than you know / Names for a daughter, blood in the snow.”

On ‘Thugs’, he laments the damage caused by patriarchy: “Fucked on arrival / touch for survival / Realise it’s only ever thugs that get by.” And on ‘The Sleeper’, TEED explores his romantic insecurities: “I don’t know how you still love me/ When I bring you nothing but trouble/ Don’t wake me up if I’m dreaming/ ‘Cause I’m dreaming you’ll be here tomorrow.”

All of which might make the album sound like a self-indulgent emo-fest. But it is nothing of the sort. The subtlety and sophistication of TEED’s music is that these plangent thoughts are often wrapped in music fit for the dancefloor, the club or the beach. ‘Crosswalk’ and ‘Sound and Rhythm’ are especially aimed at a pop-dance audience, but most of the tracks have an infectious beat and a rhythmic euphoria that is cleverly at odds with the lyrical content.

TEED’s distinctive sound has been variously labelled as EDM, chillwave and lo-fi, and I am old enough to hear the influence of Heaven 17, John Foxx and Ultravox. But what really counts is that this is a terrific album. Check out his UK tour dates here.

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
@MatthewdAncona

Photographs Courtesy Neon, Redferns, Robbie Jack/Corbis via Getty Images, Masayoshi Sukita/RCA/Getty Images, UFA/Alamy, British Lion Films/Alamy, Netflix, Sony Classics, Les Films Impéria