David Bowie: ‘He loved himself extremely. Always did’

Review: ‘Finding Fame’ doc says Bowie spent his life trying to win his mother’s approval

The documentary concentrates on the years between 1965, when David Jones reinvented himself as David Bowie, and 1972, when David Bowie reinvented himself as Ziggy Stardust.

The documentary concentrates on the years between 1965, when David Jones reinvented himself as David Bowie, and 1972, when David Bowie reinvented himself as Ziggy Stardust.

 

The BBC adjudicators reviewing a young musician’s demo tape did not mince words. “Amateur sounding vocalist who sings wrong notes and out of tune,” sniffed one. “The group has nothing to recommend it.”

“The singer is a cockney type, but not outstanding,” wrote another with evidently high standards for cockneys. “A singer devoid of personality,” ruled one more. Ouch! But one of the most fascinating revelations in David Bowie: Finding Fame (BBC Two, Saturday, 9pm) is that none of these critics were entirely wrong.

David Robert Jones, from Stanford Road in Brixton, really was a singer looking for a personality. The remarkable thing about him was just how many he would eventually find.

“There’s a lot of searching to find the individual within oneself,” we hear him say, although it’s hard to tell when, or where, those words come from. Concluding a trilogy of attentive Bowie documentaries, director Francis Whately includes audio interviews of Bowie reflecting on his career: one spoken earnestly, as though it was still an early and hopeful project; another spoken with amused self-deprecation, in a more weathered voice, as though all mysteries had been dispelled.

The documentary concentrates on the years between 1965, when Davy Jones reinvented himself as David Bowie, and 1972, when David Bowie reinvented himself as Ziggy Stardust. Whether its consoling or chilling, you don’t need to be a 1960s BBC reviewer to consider the years in between as a catalogue of failures.

Bowie flits between bands such as The Lower Third and The Riot Squad encouraging them to don costumes and makeup with mixed results. (“When they realised how many girls they could pull when they looked otherworldly they took to it like a fish to water,” he says of the Spiders from Mars.)

Bowie flits between influences too, such as the cockney singer Anthony Newley (whose theatrical vocalising Bowie never quite shakes off) and the Velvet Underground (whose avant garde cool he can’t quite pull off). Single after single bombs. His first five albums go nowhere.

“Why was I doing any of this at all?” he asks, crestfallen by his failures in singing, songwriting and, latterly, mime (at which, his mentor and ex-lover Lyndsey Kemp admits rather touchingly, “he was a load of shit”.) Bowie found an answer. “I realised it was because I wanted to be well known.”

On that, Whately’s film is most interesting, concentrating on Bowie’s stultifying home life and extraordinarily implacable mother, Peggy. “David spent his entire life trying to win her approval,” recalls his cousin, Kristina Amadeus.

But the picture of Bowie, the narcissist, is just as vivid. “He loved himself extremely,” recalls his first girlfriend, Dana Gilespie, “always did.” Tellingly, his most passionate and ultimately most painful affair is with Hermione Farthingale, a classical dancer who looks uncannily like Bowie. Their break-up burned him severely and formatively, the strange case of an artist abandoned by his own reflection.

As the music he makes in response gets more interesting, so does the documentary, labouring over the long, involved, experimental composition of Space Oddity, then the dashed-off weightlessness of Starman.

That Bowie found himself in others is abundantly clear: he might as well be speaking of himself when he says his music is “a hybrid of everything I liked.”

It’s sobering to wonder, though, if an artist of Bowie’s magnitude could emerge again – one given the opportunity to fail, and fail again, towards success. Perhaps creative restlessness persists no matter what, and for that reason Whately leaves us with the public immolation of Ziggy Stardust, singing Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide. There was someone else David Bowie needed to be.