By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
The Museum of Television and Radio's five-part, three-month David Bowie retrospective, a veritable gift of sound + vision, pulls off an optical trick worthy of the great illusionist himself: nearly four decades spanned in just under nine hours of footage, a zoetrope of fabricated selves zipping by faster than the speed of life. The thrill of compression renders the pageant doubly magical, but the remarkable juxtapositions periodically rupture the spell, illustrating what we've long known about Bowie but as awed real-time bystanders could perhaps never fully graspthat the significance of each new personality lies simply in its newness, in the images of sloughed skins and karmic rebirths. Hindsight confirms his mythopoetic knowingness as the spirit of the age. It makes perfect sense that the 20th century's last great rock star would be an instinctive semiotician and a hustling entrepreneur. The man who fell to earth goes on to sell you the world.
Part 1 (through July 7; see mtr.org for full program details) establishes the syntax of gender bending that long outlived glam's brief utopia. In the first clip, from 1964, a bouffanted, 17-year-old Davey Jones politely discusses with the BBC his Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men (also known as the International League for the Preservation of Animal Filament): "We've had comments like 'Darling' and 'Can I carry your handbag?' thrown at us and it has to stop now." The hippie-futurist "Space Oddity" clip, a remnant from an aborted German TV musical, was never aired, but the viewing public made way for the homo superior when Ziggy, resplendent in quilted psychedelic jumpsuit and still very much an orthodontic work-in-progress, performed "Starman" on Top of the Pops. Well before charges of vampiric dilettantism became commonplace, young David had the long view in his sights. From a 1973 interview: "I find that I'm a person who can take on the guises of different people that I meet."
Alan Yentob's documentary Cracked Actor, which opens Part 2, watches as Bowie finally consummates his long-distance affair with America and r&b. The soon-to-be Thin White Duke has the appearance of an anorexic waxwork. Publicity pit stops include a squirming interview with Dick Cavett, some surreally inept lip-synching on Soul Train, and gritted-teeth performances on the Dinah Shore and Cher shows. On the latter, he joins the braying hostess in a medley that makes Moulin Rouge's "Silly Love Songs" seem refined: "Young Americans" morphs into such proto-karaoke chestnuts as "Song Sung Blue" and "Da Doo Ron Ron." Seamlessly exciting, Part 3 folds in live interpretations of the Berlin trilogy material and traces Bowie's fruitful music-video partnership with David Mallett. "Look Back in Anger," with its inverted Dorian Gray gimmick, is the first of several scenarios to feature mirrors (the better to make love with one's ego, or subject it to Lacanian analysis). It's possible that for sheer demented chutzpah he's never topped the legendary Dadaist stunt on SNL: immobilized in a giant sleeveless suit, strutting about in heels and pencil skirt, and finally having his head superimposed on a marionette whose strings he was pulling. The inimitable Klaus Nomi prances and trills in the background, while the terrific band strips the songs (especially an electrifying "TVC-15") down to pure muscle.
The retro's chronological demarcations aside, it's hard not to see Bowie's as a career cleaved in two: the epoch-defining orbit roughly bookended by "Space Oddity" and its shell-shocked answer song "Ashes to Ashes" (the Pierrot-on-the-beach video is one of the most moving artifacts on view here) and the even longer free fall set in motion by Let's Dance. Part 4 suggests an allegory for the bestselling early '80s: Nosferatu exposed to sunlight. All blinding tan and teeth and platinum thatch, the "Let's Dance" and "China Girl" clips leave a strong colonialist aftertaste. "Modern Love," Bowie's best post-Scary Monsters track, is saddled with dull live footage (for the real video, rent Leos Carax's Mauvais Sang). With a shudder, you recognize the model for Todd Haynes's latter-day Brian Slade in Velvet Goldminean impression reinforced by Julien Temple's half-hour pomo promo, Jazzin' for Blue Jean, in which Bowie takes on the dual roles of a haughty rock icon and his stalker-fan. The Tin Machine racket is worse than you remember. Ditto Black Tie White Noise, though Mark Romanek's "Jump They Say" is a rare highlight in Part 5, extrapolating the title's implicit vertigo into a La Jetée homage. Prosaic slickness dominates: Just compare the Leno schmooze with the Cavett contortions. By the late '90s, the rootless minstrel had rallied back somewhat as a dedicated follower of fashiona regrettable position, though, for someone who used to devise the blueprints himself. Everything sounds like either the Prodigy or Nine Inch Nails and comes with a matching Joel-Peter Witkin abject-chic video.
Which brings us to Heathen, Bowie's 27th studio effort and by consensus his best in at least two decades (it's his first collaboration with producer Tony Visconti since Scary Monsters). A recent fan-club show at Roseland opened with a verbatim recital of Low, a perverse exercise given the vaporous, Eastern Bloc chill of its instrumental second half. To be cynical, it set the stage nicely for the premiere run-through of Heathen, which seemed unavoidably vigorous by comparison. The album lives up to its touted achievement almost by default, but it has a pleasing frostiness, a touching awareness of mortality, and Pavlovian echoes of '70s glories. The media, with a collective sigh, gladly adheres to the script he's been pitching for so long: Now 55, handsomer than ever, David Bowie has finally scrambled out of the void. But he must know that this eager-to-please, practically nostalgic collection is hardly sufficient to ignite a final blaze. Or does he? After nearly 40 years, is fear of irrelevance still his greatest motivation? Dennis Lim