I think one of the stranger moments in the history of documentary filmmaking—if not filmmaking generally—is from a 1974 BBC documentary called Cracked Actor: A Film About David Bowie. The movie, not unlike Bowie’s best albums, is more like a montage of short scenes, loosely connected by the persona at the center. About five minutes into the film, Bowie can be seen in the daylight for the first and—besides one brief scene that picks up where this one left off at the film’s midpoint—last time in the documentary’s 53 minutes. The sun’s rays seep into the back of a limousine, where Bowie sits, in a black, long-sleeved shirt that does not cover his bellybutton, and a large black hat that covers his face in shadow. The strangest thing is not the sunlight, which is hardly Bowie’s natural environment, particularly in the mid-’70s, or the fact that he’s harmonizing with Aretha Franklin, who is heard singing “Natural Woman” on the car’s radio, in between giant gulps of 2 percent milk taken direct from the carton. No, the strange thing is that David Bowie, The Man Who Fell To Earth himself, smiling big and driving through the California desert, very briefly seems like he was actually born on this planet. That smile! How tragically human!
Then the moment passes.
“Since you’ve been in America, you seem to have picked up on a lot of the idioms and themes of American music, and American culture,” an interviewer, sitting in the car with him, says. “How does that happen?”
“There’s a fly floating around in my milk!” Bowie responds. “There’s a foreign body in it, you see, and he’s getting a lot of milk.” He pauses to laugh menacingly. “That’s kind of how I feel.”
He turns to look out the window, cutting himself off. “A wax museum!” he says. “A bleeding wax museum in the middle of the desert! You’d think it would melt, wouldn’t you?”
When Bowie died of cancer on Sunday, at the age of 69, enough people thought it was a hoax that his publicist had to reconfirm the news. Point being: how could someone so much larger than life finally succumb to it? (On the morning after he died, I wrote to a friend expressing disbelief. “He’s not dead,” the friend wrote back, “just pulling into the next station.”) Cracked Actor finds Bowie in the aftermath of a different death—that of his persona Ziggy Stardust, an exaggerated stand-in for Bowie himself, whose burnout was foretold as early as 1972. (The song “Ziggy Stardust,” Bowie’s biographical sketch on the character, is tellingly written in the past tense.) Bowie officially killed off the character at the Hammersmith Odeon on July 3, 1973, after which the artist came to America and, as Cracked Actor’s narrator states, “buried Ziggy somewhere between New York and Hollywood.”
On the subsequent tour documented throughout the course of the film, Bowie transitions from the hard rock of Ziggy to the R&B of the forthcoming Young Americans (1975), becoming more and more baroque while his music melts into an oddly earnest—if only slightly alien—tribute to the American songbook. By this time, he’s wholly uninterested in “Space Oddity,” his first hit, released only five years earlier. Footage shows him playing the song seated in a chair, his face expressionless, singing placidly into a red phone. His performance of the more recent “Sweet Things,” however, sounds like Gershwin and looks like something you’d see at a Chippendale’s revue. The title song, performed at a Los Angeles concert, is like 3+3-era Isley Brothers scoring a Brecht play. Bowie is wearing a Hamlet cloak over a suit that can only be described as proto–David Byrne, singing to a skull while performers around him hold flood lights and cameras, illuminating him, but also getting in the way, a sarcastic dig at Bowie’s still fairly new post-Ziggy fame. He proceeds to kiss the skull aggressively.
Cut to Bowie in the back of his limo again, driving through an apocalyptic L.A. A billboard for Kent cigarettes looms ominously, and a dog ambles across a major boulevard. It’s dark out, and a police siren is going off. Bowie looks around anxiously, his face registering the kind of paranoia reserved only for the most famous cocaine addiction since Sigmund Freud. “Are we not stopped?” he says, terrified. “Is there anything behind us?” Then, in one of the film’s more significant small gestures, Bowie sniffs.
“There’s an underlying unease here,” he says. “Definitely. You can feel it in every avenue. It’s very calm, and it’s a kind of superficial calmness that they’ve developed to underplay the fact that there’s a lot of high pressure here. It’s a very big entertainment industry area.”
I like everything about this quote. For Bowie to say that a police siren in L.A. freaked him out only because the city is “a very big entertainment industry area” has to be one of the most dissociative moments of the 20th century. Bowie was, of course, famous for his evasiveness in interviews. A particularly condescending American interviewer asks Bowie at the beginning of the film if he “gets tired of being outrageous.” Bowie doesn’t care for this description. The interviewer asks him what adjective he would use to describe himself. “David Bowie,” Bowie responds. But there are moments in Cracked Actor when he seems to really be grasping at clarity with the BBC. He occasionally succeeds: at one point, he discusses some of his mediocre earlier albums as mere attempts at coping with fame, which itself he compares to “a car…accelerating very, very fast, and you’re not driving.” But for the most part, when Bowie is on camera, he talks about himself as if he’s not in the room.
This is to say nothing of his freaky fans, interviewed outside of one of Bowie’s shows. One of the finest depictions of star worship comes when a rigid BBC crew member talks to a fan with Hunky Dory hair and Aladdin Sane face paint.
Fan: “He’s from his own universe.”
Interviewer: “What universe is that?”
Fan: “The Bowie Universe.”
Interviewer: “Have you been to the Bowie Universe?”
Fan: “He’s the center, I was just drawn to it.”
Interviewer: “How were you drawn to it?”
Fan: [Shrugs] “I’m from Phoenix and [long pause] I just came.”
The film ends with Bowie fully entering his new persona. “So David Bowie becomes a soul singer,” the narrator deadpans. There’s a very David Bowie moment that precedes this conclusion. An interviewer comments that Bowie, in his concerts, seems to be playing the ghost of Ziggy Stardust. Bowie more or less agrees.
“I’m very happy with Ziggy,” Bowie says. “I think he was a very successful character, and I think I played him very well.” Then, very seriously: “But I’m glad I’m me now.”
Suddenly, he’s human once more, self-aware and laughing heartily at himself: “I’m glad I’m me now!” he says, shaking his head, vaguely embarrassed. “My God, I can trot ’em out.”