Cracked Actor: David Bowie, Movie Star

bowie-velvet goldmine

Velvet Goldmine (1997)

The 1988 BBC radio documentary Bowie at the Beeb (not the 2000 CD box set—it’s available as a bootleg) segues from a Radio One performance of “Starman” into a retrospective interview with BBC radio producer Jeff Griffin, who recalls that during a morning recording session, while Mick Ronson was doing guitar overdubs, Bowie, in the control booth, started doodling on a piece of paper. When Bowie left the booth to record vocals, Griffin recalls, he looked at the sketch: “I was really amazed to see it was a drawing of a singer with a hole in him, and the caption underneath was, ‘Singer being shot whilst on stage.'”

Bowie was so image-conscious that he seems, even in his affable later years, to have stage-managed his own death, and he famously refused to license his music to Todd Haynes, and forced rewrites to push the film’s story further away from that of his own life. (Though the title, and Bowie stand-in Brian Slade’s fantasy of in-concert annihilation and self-effacement-by-persona, obviously remain, among other familiar details.)

The film works all the better for it—Bowie remains very much the structuring absence here, the black star around which Sandy Powell’s mod and glam costumes, and the platform-perfect new and vintage songs on the soundtrack, all orbit.

The film, too, is the perfect tribute to the man who sang of “Believing the strangest things, loving the alien.” Throughout the narrative, an alien-bestowed bauble, representing starry genius and transcendent bisexuality, is passed from character to character, symbolic of their difference, which is at first a burden, and ultimately an ecstasy.

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