The UK’s first David Bowie film festival opens at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) on Friday. I had a chat with its curators to find out how the project came about.
How Bowiefest was born
For a performer who is now notoriously reclusive, David Bowie is strikingly present in London. The British rock icon’s music featured in the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games, and next year the Victoria and Albert Museum will display Bowie’s extravagant costumes in an exhibition.
But Bowie’s substantial and eccentric work as an actor has – surprisingly – never been celebrated with an event in the UK. This realisation hit the festival’s curators Natasha Dack and Oli Harbottle when they were out one night at the Hot Docs documentary festival in Canada last year.”We realised we were both massive Bowie fans,” says Oli. “A Bowie film festival had never been done and it seemed like a no-brainer – films are such a big element of his career. It’s been a crazy path ever since and we can’t believe that we’re the lucky ones that had the idea.”
The pair approached the ICA, a venue whose rock pedigree includes gigs from Pink Floyd and The Clash, not to mention a move-for-move re-enactment of Bowie’s final performance as his character Ziggy Stardust, organised by artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard in 1998.
Natasha and Oli whittled Bowiefest’s content down to eight films focusing on classic movies from the 1970s and 1980s, such as fantasy film Labyrinth where Bowie rules over Jim Henson’s puppets as the Goblin king Jareth. There are also two documentaries following Bowie on stage and talks with directors Alan Yentob and Nicolas Roeg.
Compare Bowie’s otherworldly film roles like an alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth with performances such as his turn as a WWII prisoner of war in Japan in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, and it could be hard to spot a connection. But one thread runs through all of his characters, according to Natasha: “There is a unifying theme with the characters he played: he’s always been an outsider in films. That’s quintessential Bowie.”
Ziggy Startdust was the iconic stage persona Bowie took on for barely a year, before “retiring” the character in London at a concert at the Hammersmith Odeon (now the Hammersmith Apollo) in 1973. That night is the subject of one of the festival’s documentary films, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
The documentaries have had few cinema outings, explains Oli: “People rarely get to sit in the cinema with other Bowie fans and watch these amazing moments. In Cracked Actor, which follows his 1974 Diamond Dogs tour, you see Bowie at his most creative. But he also looks and he acts very vulnerable and emaciated – it’s a real insight into him as a person because he talks about creating his personas.”
Bowiefest takes place from 31 August to 2 September at the ICA. To book tickets visit bowiefest.net.