For DAVID BOWIE, the ’60s were a searching period of knock-backs and artistic U-turns.
His early work has rarely been shown the love it deserves. This all looks set to change in 2019.
The Radio Times has a sharp 1968 Bowie as its cover star this week (nice cover, guys. Seen that somewhere before….). A new limited 7” box set of previously unreleased late ’60s demos entitled Spying Through A Keyhole is due for release in April – but first, BBC Two will air the much-anticipated David Bowie – Finding Fame next Saturday. The conclusion of film-maker Francis Whately’s acclaimed trilogy of documentary films on Bowie, it focuses on his early years. Shindig! has been lucky enough to watch a preview copy. MARTIN RUDDOCK digs everything
It’s only February, but when those inevitable end of year ‘Best Of 2019’ clip shows roll around – it’ll be a crime if they don’t include longtime David Bowie sideman Carlos Alomar dissecting his old bosses infamous 1967 novelty single ‘The Laughing Gnome’. Alomar, the man who lit up Bowie’s soul and Berlin eras with understated funk is an unlikely cheerleader for the much-maligned ‘Gnome’ – but watching him gleefully run through it with guitar in hand makes for excellent telly.
The ‘Gnome’ sequence of Francis Whately’s new film on Bowie’s formative era Finding Fame is just one of many highlights. Cleverly cutting the song to clips of Anthony Newley from The Strange World Of Gurney Slade, Whately gives it the sort of insights that would generally be glossed over by many critics in favour of the umpteenth deep dive into ‘Heroes’. And it’s great fun. Alomar points out the unlikely similarities to the Velvets ‘Waiting For The Man’, while slowed down out-takes of the infamous sped-up gnome speech include an unmistakeable bark of “FARK ORF!” from Bowie.
This is basically Bowie’s origin story, how he pulled at all manner of threads until his songwriting cohered. As with his previous Bowie films, Whateley leaves the talking heads to do the heavy lifting and really delivers with his choices. Friends and collaborators Tony Visconti, Rick Wakeman, Woody Woodmansey and Geoff McCormack offer plenty of interview candy for Bowie fans. There’s also Dana Gillespie, John ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson (who also appeared on BBC One’s The One Show to plug the film this week), and members of The Lower Third and Riot Squad. Wakeman pulls those icy ‘Space Oddity’ chords out on a mellotron, while mid-60s producer Tony Hatch endearingly plonks through a snatch of ‘Can’t Help Thinking About Me’ on piano. A clearly unwell, but still acerbic Lindsay Kemp also appears in his final TV interview. In a major coup for Whateley there are the first ever onscreen interviews with Bowie’s cousin Kristina Amadeus, and most strikingly former lover and muse Hermione Farthingale. Both are good value, but Farthingale’s tender but candid recollections of her year with Bowie give what’s perhaps a better account of the artist as a young man than any amount of hoary old stories about Bowie’s Tony Newley obsession or Tony Visconti’s cape.
Of course the real voice of the film is Bowie himself. Almost always off-screen, his own running commentary (drawn from innumerable interviews) is wry, funny and often very touching. Skipping back and forward in time, Whateley also draws out how much of Bowie’s early music is informed by his relationship with his cold mother and loving, but distant father. The wealth of material the Bowie Estate has allowed for use is also quite something. Nuggets include the ’65 Lower Third demo ‘That’s A Promise’, a solo ‘Conversation Piece’ and the early version of ‘Space Oddity’ with Hutch soon to feature on Spying Through A Keyhole. There’s also a tantalising snippet of ‘The Supermen’ live with the Hype in those glam-superhero costumes, but frustratingly it’s all but obscured by voiceovers.
Finding Fame isn’t quite perfect. There’s a lot of voices to fit in here, and Whately does well to give as much airtime as he does to so many – but it is a shame that the significant role played by ’60s manager-mentor Ken Pitt in Bowie’s development is largely overlooked. Then again, with so many facets to try and cover – as Bowie himself found in the ’60s you can’t please everyone.
At the time of writing, the “Holy Grail” discovery of Bowie and the Spiders’ legendary long-lost performance of ‘Starman’ on Lift-Off With Ayeshea isn’t included in the preview copy we were very kindly allowed to view by the BBC. Whateley is apparently still waiting to see if the ancient tape is salvageable. Hopefully it will make it into the final film, but this is still essential viewing for Bowie fans. Also, where else can you see Carlos Alomar happily strumming through ‘The Laughing Gnome’?
If you’re a fan of David Bowie’s ’60s work, you might also enjoy Shindig! Issue 78, which is available here