"I'm going to become a huge rock star. Next time you see me, I'll be totally different."--David Bowie, 1971
David Bowie might very well be one of the few rock 'n roll veterans left who still has the ability to stay relevant and fresh. This was never so evident than just this past week, when the man released his first new single in a decade. The hoopla that greeted the majestic, introspective, perfectly appropriate for a 65-year-old dude "Where Are We Now?" had the internet abuzz in a way that puts the latest Ke$ha jam to shame.
Of course, the constant need for creativity and reinvention that defines Bowie's career goes all the way back to his roots, a subject comprehensively explored in the 65-minute documentary The Calm Before the Storm: Under Review 1969-1971. Although Bowie himself is absent from this U.K. production, the film uses a wide variety of experts and Bowie collaborators to explore his early, trend-setting albums Space Oddity (1969), The Man Who Sold The World (1970) and Hunky Dory (1971).
Outside of that trio of albums, this film goes into some depth with Bowie's earliest, pre-fame period, demonstrating that the guy always had a certain measure of ambition, self-awareness and personal flair (check out the 1963 clip of a poised Bowie on a chat show, looking like a cross between a Beatle and a Saville Row suit salesman). After a few years serving in various combos under the David Jones moniker, his first proper solo singles preceded the 1967 LP David Bowie, which is given a cursory overview in this doc. The atmospheric 1969 hit "Space Oddity" and its accompanying album of the same name (whose Donovanesque folkie rock sounds nothing like the single) was his true breakthrough, most of its tracks discussed here in illuminating detail. Along with the music itself, Bowie's frame of mind at the time and the influence of longtime collaborators like producer Tony Visconti and guitarist Mick Ronson get a good amount of coverage. Never one to rest in one place, Bowie then confounded expectations with 1970's heavy, proto-goth The Man Who Sold The World. The LP's cover image of Bowie reclining in a feminine dress seemed to solidify his androgynous persona, but more importantly the album was a great step forward to him lyrically with its probing, anxious tunes dealing with mental instability and hiding behind masks.
Following The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie embarked on a tour of the U.S. This leads to a discussion of the American influence on Bowie's music, the emergence of Glam Rock culture, and what lead to the creation of one of Bowie's most enduring albums, 1971's Hunky Dory. Bowie always brought something of a show tune-y flourish to his music that his contemporaries generally lacked, heard in full flower on efforts like "Changes" and "Oh! You Pretty Things." One of the more incisive parts of this film comes in this segment, which coincides with when Bowie befriends fellow Glam Rock titan Marc Bolan of T. Rex. While Bowie had the intelligence and wherewithal to know when to move on to more creatively challenging things, Bolan was a terrific musician who only knew how to do one thing well and subsequently floundered when Glam Rock petered out.
The Calm Before the Storm: Under Review 1969-1971 is another quality music doc from Chrome Dreams (distributed in the U.S. by Sexy Intellectual), which also released the Brian Wilson examinations Songwriter 1962-69 and Songwriter 1969-82. While this Bowie doc is quite illuminating, it seems a bit raggedy around the edges compared with the Wilson pieces. The show follows basically the same format, with expert interviews interwoven with vintage photos, performance clips, and song segments (no tune is played in its entirety). The producers have found some interesting stuff to include here, such as the quaint flower power-era promo film Love You till Tuesday. Some songs are accompanied by head-scratching clips from the films Metropolis and The Third Man, which doesn't work as well. The film appears to have been made some time ago (among the interviewees is legendary British DJ John Peel, who died in 2004), but the information it presents is solid and knowledgeable. The resulting film ends up being both insider-ish and accessible, a canny feat.
This 4:3 presentation is shot on video, which comes across as somewhat too-sharp and overly saturated but decent overall. The film uses a lot of archival clips with vary in quality (although the vintage movie clips are surprisingly nice looking).
The stereo sound mix on this documentary is pleasantly mixed. The clear dialogue doesn't interfere with the music, which is thankfully not mixed in at louder levels. No other alternate audio or subtitle options are present on this disc.
It's not advertised on the packaging at all, but Chrome Dreams supplied a small amount of extras on the disc: a tricky Interactive Quiz of 25 trivia questions related to Bowie during this period (I only got 7 correct); in The Birth of Ziggy (3:53), journalist Kris Needs shares his eyewitness observations of Bowie adopting the Ziggy Stardust persona; concise Contributor Biographies and a page advertising other Bowie DVDs from Chrome Dreams round out the bonus content.
Ground control to Major Tom: the brief but substantial UK production David Bowie - The Calm Before the Storm: Under Review 1969-1971 serves an enjoyable look at the rock legend's pre-Ziggy Stardust period. Even people who aren't particularly into Bowie's music will find something to admire in the shrewd Bowie that comes across in this documentary of his formative years. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.