Inside the David Bowie time capsule

A new film looks into the late star’s Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition that drew in 312,000 visitors

David Bowie Is
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Director: Hamish Hamilton, Katy Mullan, Hanif Kureishi
Cert: PG
Genre: Documentary
Starring: David Bowie, Jarvis Cocker
Running Time: 1 hr 36 mins

David Bowie certainly didn't shuffle off the coil through a cloud of obscurity. Just three years before his death, he found himself right at the front of the cultural conversation again. His penultimate LP, The Next Day, was released to waves of acclaim and, later in the year, an exhibition named David Bowie Is opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Packed with memorabilia, unseen footage and cunningly staged installations, the show drew in a breathtaking 312,000 visitors. It later toured the world.

Screening at Vue cinemas, this version of David Bowie Is should not really be viewed as a grown-up feature film. The V&A is, it seems, aiming for something a little like those live cinematic relays of operas from the ENO or plays from the National Theatre.

Unfortunately, you can't just plonk the camera in front of an exhibition as you might if attempting to record La Traviata. So we begin with a slightly cheesy introduction – delivered from an exterior balcony – by V&A co-curators Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh. Words such as "groundbreaking" and "treasure trove" are used.


Then we go inside to look at the exhibits, talk to visitors and break for occasional contributions from experts. In short, it’s a little like hugely extended footage for the sort of arts review show that might feature Paul Morley. Look who it is. Morley is one of those – Jarvis Cocker and Hanif Kureishi are others – who turn up to tell us how wonderful the show is.

Happily, on this evidence, the exhibition seems to deserve its triumphant reception. Anybody (like this writer) raised on Bowie will delight at seeing his original acetate of The Velvet Underground and Nico, sketches for the Diamond Dogs tour and the letter from his manager announcing a change of name from "David Jones" to "David Bowie".

“Who could do all this in a lifetime?” one visitor asks. “And he’s not even dead yet.”

Ah, no. Don’t say that.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist