A look at BowieFest at London’s ICA

Between Friday 31st August and Sunday 2nd September, the first ever David Bowie Film Festival took place at London’s stunning, ICA. But the first question I have to ask, why now?

In the year of David Bowie’s 65th birthday, and the 40th anniversary of the seminal album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, it seems the perfect time to celebrate an overlooked aspect of the great man’s career, namely his contribution to cinema and the small screen.

The second question which I have to ask – why has this never been done before?

No one I asked, actually knows why there hasn’t been a BowieFest before, especially as he has appeared in such a wide variety of films from the past 40 years taking on just as many different personas as he has done throughout his musical career. Ranging from space alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth to ageing vampire in The Hunger and all the way to Jareth, the goblin king in children’s (and adults favourite), Labyrinth. 

The third – what films are they going to show?

With such a wide variety out there, the curators of this brilliant event, Natasha Dack and Oli Harbottle, have had to choose just enough films to fill the three days as well as schedule some brilliant Q & A’s (inc. The Man Who Fell To Earth director, Nic Roeg) and conversations with Woody Woodmansy and Alan Yentob.

Absolute Beginners (15)

Director: Julien Temple. UK, 1986.

Christiane F (18)

Director: Uli Edel. Germany, 1981.

The Hunger (18)

Director: Tony Scott. UK, 1983.

Labyrinth (U)

Director: Jim Henson. UK/USA, 1986.

The Man Who Fell To Earth  (18)

Director:  Nicolas Roeg. UK, 1976.

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (15)

Director: Nagisa Ôshima. UK/Japan, 1983.

So what actually happened over the weekend?

Well, that is a good question indeed because the excitement of a festival like this is that you forget the generational gap between Bowie fans and once we got into the ICA, we were all one and the same. What joined us all was our love and enjoyment for the work of David Bowie, one of the seminal British musicians of the last century. For the opening night, some people were dressed up in Bowie style dress but everyone was ready to rock out to a screening of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary about the historic 1973 concert ‘leper Messiah’.

What was so beautiful about this screening was that this concert marked a turning point in the history of Bowie, and to have the privilege to watch it on screen made everyone remember quite why he is the musician we know off today. As well as the music, and the man behind the music, he was the performance. Not just the performer, the man on stage with the words and the rhythms, but he made the performance come alive for the crowd. And it wasn’t just the crowd in 1973, but us sitting in the screen at the ICA. You forgot you were watching a film and instead it became like a concert like atmosphere, with the crowd clapping after each of the songs, singing along and moving to the film.

What made this film so intrinsically beautiful and emotional for everyone in the room was that you forgot you were watching a film, a screen with simulated images and instead we all felt like we were at the concert. The grainy colour and recorded sound didn’t inhibit our senses of making us feel like we were watching Bowie performing right in front of us. When Bowie spoke to the crowds that day, it was like he was talking to us almost 40 years later- the songs still ring true and the voice still has the power to affect.

The next day, I was excited to see The Man Who Fell To Earth, which is one of the most well known of the Bowie films. Based upon the book by Walter Tevis, this film follows Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie) as a humanoid alien who comes to Earth from a distant planet on a mission to bring water back to his home planet, Anthea, which is experiencing a catastrophic drought.What the rest of the film is about, I will leave up to readers, but what ensued was an almost three hours orgy of colour, noise and narrative.

The thing about The Man Who Fell To Earth, are the images and sequences that are stuck in your head – the characters are Newton getting older, the flashing lights, the moment he pops his eye out to show he is an alien; all aspects of the film, which truly mark this as one of the best alien films. Nic Roeg’s film is not an easy watch, and beware, there are moments which are both alarming, disturbing and sometimes, damn confusing, but on repeat watching – its a film, which demands a lot of attention.

Following the film, there was a wonderful Q & A with the man himself, who came onto the stage with the enthusiasm for a twenty year old; it was easy to forget that the man is 84. What I found most interesting was when Roeg was talking about the unhumanness of Bowie himself, before the film when they first meet, and throughout shooting – he wasn’t keeping in character, Bowie really was a man from another planet. Keep your eyes on the site, where I will upload the interview with Roeg.

Later on the Saturday, I saw another film, this time a picture by the late Tony Scott – The Hunger. I wasn’t sure what to expect of this film, except that it has vampires and lesbian overtones throughout. The film, as well as Bowie, stars the brilliant Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve who end up having a fatal relationship throughout the film after Bowie’s characters’ demise.

The film itself is a very confusing mess, but that was pointed out in the 80’s when it was first made. Never quite going far enough to be a comedy, or a horror, or a thriller, The Hunger sort of middles all the genres whilst also being a very sexy film. Despite Bowie’s death relatively early on in the film, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Despite the muddles, it is a stunning looking film, a debut for Scott who went on to make True Romance and Top Gun.

The colour and highly stylised verisimilitude in The Hunger, are what make it so enjoyable. There is a delicate mixture of complete darkness with the most earth shattering light throughout the film, and both the main female leads enjoy the softest star lighting I have ever seen in a film outside of pornography.

Lastly, on the Sunday, I saw one of my favouite films ever… Labyrinth. Starring a young Jennifer Connelly, Labyrinth tells the story of Sarah’s (Connelly) quest to reach the center of an enormous otherworldly maze to rescue her infant brother Toby, who has been kidnapped by Jareth (Bowie), the Goblin King. The film, which was directed by Jim Henson, also stars a wide variety of puppets made for the film, as well as having an awesome soundtrack recorded by Bowie.

The film is a fun, acid (child friendly) trip through what 80s children were imaging at the time and it certainly succeeds the test of time, where the songs still get my feet moving and my heart beating at watching Sarah trying to beat Jareth, despite knowing what happens every time.

So all in all?

All in all, this was a brilliant event, which is going on a global tour next year to locations including NYC and Sydney – and rightly so I say!

I want to thank the ICA for hosting such an event, and everyone there for making sure it went well and was enjoyed by all. Also, thanks to Naomi Crowther in the press department for making sure I was able to go to BowieFest!

About The Author

Reviews Editor, Contributor and Festival Coordinator

Ollie has written for Front Row Reviews pretty much since its inception about seven years ago whilst still studying Film & Television. Since then, he was trust into the world of independent film distribution and has recently started working with Picturehouse Entertainment in their Marketing Department. Having written and produced two radio series, he is moving hoping to (one day) write a web series/short film/feature (delete as appropriate ;)). His favourite director is David Lynch (which makes him make a lot of sense!) and his favourite films are The Hours, Mulholland Drive, Volver, Blade Runner and Bridget Jones Diary.

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