When asked the rationale for his band’s extravagant concerts, head Flaming Lip Wayne Coyne once responded that he felt obligated to give the audience something in exchange for their money, to send them home thinking that they had actually experienced something new and exciting. Of all the countless acts in rock ‘n’ roll history, only a small percentage are known for consistently providing such awe, and David Bowie would be near the top of that group. From his Ziggy Stardust days to his Thin White Duke period to his Berlin trilogy days, Bowie is known for sending his fans home thinking that had seen something, even if they weren’t quite sure what. Even legends, however, are human (even those posing as aliens), and they have their not-so-transcendent moments. Serious Moonlight, a new DVD highlighting Bowie’s 1983 tour of the same name, is proof of this unfortunate fact.
Serious Moonlight captures Bowie at the point where he began to falter, right after the release of Let’s Dance. Though the album contains some of Bowie’s best singles, such as “Modern Love”, “China Girl”, and the title track, this period marked a decline in the icon’s powers. The following year, 1984, Bowie would release the weak Tonight, an album roundly panned for merely rehashing its predecessor — a sign that Bowie was uncertain about how to remain relevant, much less innovative, a decade and a half into his career. Bowie, the cliché goes, is a musical chameleon, able to not only adapt to, but also anticipate and spark, new trends. Even he, though, wasn’t sure about how to deal with the ’80s.
This fact is painfully obvious in Serious Moonlight. Dressed in a suit and sporting a curly pompadour that looks like a parody of Morrissey, Bowie looks neither cool nor confident. Rather, he looks like a man realizing that he set the bar too high for even himself, ultimately opting to play it conservative because… well… men in their mid-30s look silly making the kind of extreme fashion statements that make men in their twenties appear radical. If Bowie looked cool dressed more conservatively in the mid-’70s during his soul phase, he looks downright complacent in Serious Moonlight, perhaps accepting that an artist cannot be avant-garde forever.
Such a restrained appearance might be ascribed to basic maturity were it not for Bowie’s stage behavior, which also points to a man uncertain of his powers. No longer draped in the glam mystique of Ziggy Stardust or lost within the cocaine haze of the Thin White Duke, the Bowie in Serious Moonlight has nothing to do onstage but twitter and flounce like — ironically — an effeminate space alien on drugs. His behavior is made only slightly less absurd by that of his band, who look like an unholy mixture of the Village People and the E Street Band, sporting ridiculous outfits and closing in on Bowie during climatic moments to rock in unison. Classics like “Golden Years” and “Rebel Rebel” are tough to watch without scoffing because of the band’s choreographed nonsense. At the beginning of “Golden Years”, for example, Bowie is sitting down, flanked by two singers in cabaret suits and another sporting a sailor hat. For some reason, they are all staring at and pointing to the sky, as if they’ve just seen a supernatural occurrence — which is something the audience couldn’t claim that night. Overall, the performance is contrived and corny, and only detracts from the songs.
If all of this isn’t enough reason to avoid Serious Moonlight, the production and editing of the concert are plain laughable. Recorded on video, the concert looks hazy and diffuse, as if shot through a thin layer of gauze. Combined with the tacky outfits of the band, the overall look of the picture gives the concert a creepy Glamour Shots feel; halfway through the concert, you expect Bowie to grab his collar, tilt his head to the side, and stare into the camera. The editing, moreover, uses a host of techniques gone awry, such as dramatic dissolves and slow motion sequences that replay Bowie doing such exciting things as kicking the air. Yes, replay that in slow motion! Again, please!
Thankfully, the ’90s saw a more confident, coherent Bowie, perhaps because he was in his 40s and past the awkward transition from revolutionary innovator to revered statesman. By the time he unearthed Earthling in 1997, Bowie had found a way to balance playing it safe and experimenting with new styles. And thank God — he would not want to end on the ridiculous note played throughout Serious Moonlight. More than showing Bowie’s career temporarily stumbling, it’s a testament to glossy absurdity of the ’80s.