David Bowie needs no introduction. A hugely influential figure in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, he has no fewer than three albums in the Acclaimed Music Great List of rock albums—the same list that PopMatters’ own Counterbalance column routinely explores. Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars chacks in at #16 on the list, and his steady presence on FM rock radio ensures his continued presence in the pantheon of rock stars.
Even non-fans are likely to be familiar with ‘Space Oddity” (i.e., “Ground Control to Major Tom”), “Ziggy Stardust”, “Fame”, “Young Americans”, “Let’s Dance”, “China Doll”, and of course “Suffragette City”, which lays claim to the greatest single rock lyric ever penned: “She had she had to squeeze it, but she, and then she…”
David Bowie: The Calm Before the Storm takes much of this as given. As part of the Under Review documentary series, the filmmakers assume that you have at least a passing knowledge of Bowie’s work, and probably a deeply-held belief in his greatness. Considering—correctly—that the Ziggy Stardust album was the one that both established his reputation and marked the beginning of a remarkably inventive portion of an already-quixotic career, the documentary focuses on Bowie’s early days with other bands like The Mannish Boys and The Lower Third, leading eventually to the first trio of albums released under his own name.
Those early albums weren’t exactly throwaways. Space Oddity contained the epic title track along with much hippie guitar strumming, which reached its peak of hummability and good-vibes chill with the seven-minute “Memory of a Free Festival”, complete with long, “Hey Jude”-style coda at the end. Sophomore effort The Man Who Sold the World is an altogether darker affair, but one which some listeners put second only to Ziggy
itself. “Hunky Dory” was the final of the pre-Ziggy Stardust albums, and contained such Bowie standards as “Changes”, “Oh! You Pretty Things” and “Life on Mars”.
The Calm Before the Storm walks a fine line between claiming that these early albums are pretty great, but also that real greatness was lying just around the corner. It’s a tricky line to walk, but the doc does a reasonable job of having it both ways. The film relies heavily on talking-head interviews with music journos such as Andrew Meuller and John Peel, along with various musicians and producer Tony Visconti, supplemented by archival footage, bits of video and occasional performance snippets. The viewer is presented with a picture of a performer who is both restlessly creative and relentlessly ambitious.
Inevitably, the reliance on second- or third-party testimony grows tiresome. There are no interviews with Bowie himself here, nor are there any extended glimpses of his performances, so a viewer who is not familiar with the music will quite likely feel bewildered about all the fuss.
What archival glimpses we do get are beguiling. Bowie starred in a 1969 TV film called Love You Till Tuesday, which at this historical remove appears both refreshingly guileless and utterly twee. Such uninterpreted moments stand out in contrast to many of the interviews, in which some (not all) of the commentators have little more to say than the average guy at the bar: “The song itself [‘Space Oddity’] is just a great, great song. Great chord changes, great feeling, great vocals… Very creative.” Well, yes. Thanks for the insight.
The Man Who Sold the World brought a darker, more electrified sound to the party, and remains largely unknown to non-fans outside of the title track. Unfortunately, the doc wastes time with a clip of Nirvana playing the song live on MTV and some moments of Kurt Cobain psychoanalysis. Virtually no mention is made of guitarist Mick Ronson, whose muscular guitar playing was as important to Bowie’s breakthrough success as Bowie himself. (Okay, maybe that’s an overstatement, but for a guitarhead like me, the guitar tone is every bit as important as the vocalist.)
Bowie’s flirtation with sexual ambiguity also took root at this point, with the cover of The Man Who Sold the World showing him in a dress; later incarnations of the asexual Ziggy Starduct would only serve to compound this image, as would rumors of Bowie’s bisexuality. (He once claimed that he met his first wife in a threesome, when they were both fucking the same guy.) This ambiguity did not always sit easily with American rock audiences, but it became an integral part of his image nonetheless.
Ultimately, The Calm Before the Storm is a film that is unlikely to satisfy anyone. Bowie fans will be frustrated by the scarce amount of archival material, and they are likely to have seen the videos by now anyway; casual fans who might be unfamiliar with the material are likely to be frustrated as much as anything else. Movies which consist primarily of people sitting around saying, “He was really great, and here’s why I think so” are rarely satisfying or interesting. This is no exception.
Extras here os almost nonexistent; there is a three-minute talking head interview with journalist Kris Needs about Bowie’s early incarnation as Ziggy Stardust, and a few other throwaways. For the price of this film, you could buy a couple of CDs or download a few albums. The smart money says: go to the source.