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‘The Man Who Changed The World’ Cashes In On David Bowie’s Death But Doesn’t Explain His Greatness

Where to Stream

Bowie: The Man Who Changed The World

A friend asked me the other day if I’d seen any good music documentaries lately (some friend, he obviously had not been keeping up on my weekly music doc reviews for Decider, hmph!). I told him I’d probably seen about 60 in the past year. Of those, maybe 5 were great. Another 10 to 15 were at the very least “good.” The rest were kind of like pizza, you know, even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good. A select few were out and out terrible. Bowie: The Man Who Changed The World, currently available for streaming on Netflix, falls into the last category.

My Dad worked in magazines, and I remember being fascinated when he told me they already had memorial issues written for elderly celebrities, in anticipation of their deaths (President Ronald Reagan and Frank Sinatra being two they had on ice). The idea was have the issue on the stands before the body was in the ground in order to quickly cash-in on the wave of nostalgia following their demise. Likewise, Bowie: The Man Who Changed The World, which came out within 4 months of his passing in January 2016, feels opportunistic and hastily assembled, cribbed together from archival footage and interviews with B-list acquaintances.

It is beyond refute that David Bowie was one of the most important artists in the history of rock n’ roll. Over five decades in the public eye, he wrote a library’s worth of great songs, was pivotal in the development of glam rock, inspired countless musicians and musical movements, influenced fashion and culture, and treated his life as a piece of art unto itself, constantly reinventing himself and reimagining his music and on-stage persona. If it’s possible to oversell his importance, Bowie: The Man Who Changed The World figures out a way how. The overdramatic film title – a play on Bowie’s 1970 album The Man Who Sold The World – and giant floating letters spelling out “BOWIE” in the opening credits garishly telegraph his significance, a stark contrast to his learned sensibility and conceptual rock n’ roll. While the hyperbolic narration tells us Bowie was “an innovator unlike any other,” the ensuing hour and a half does little to illuminate or explain his greatness.

One big problems is The Man Who Changed The World contains not a single note of Bowie’s actual music, nor any extended performance footage of him. This is of course in order to save the significant fees licensing his music would entail. Thus, we have no way to hear how his music changed throughout his various stylictic periods or see how he incorporated theater and dance into the staging of his famously riveting live shows. Worst of all, to fill these musical gaps, the director decided to use soundtrack music that I can only assume they thought sounded “Bowie-esque,” some of which is distractingly bad.

After a disorienting 10-minute opening pastiche of disembodied voices delivering mundane assessments of Bowie’s artistic achievements, the film starts covering the particulars of his life. The facts of his upbringing and artistic development are stacked on top of each other like a freshman term paper, cataloging details to prove they read the text book. The interview subjects are a collection of ex-lovers, admirers and managers, mostly from before he hit it big, and while they have the occasional interesting anecdote, they shed no new light on his music or career-arc.

We meet the classmate who punched him in the eye, forever dilating one of his pupils. So what. We meet his high school girlfriend. Who cares. We meet his first manager who Bowie refused to talk to after 1976. I think I understand why. Several minutes are spent explaining the influence of Anthony Newley. Who? We’re then treated to such riveting insights (sic.) as “The roots of Bowie’s genius lay in his ability to write classic pop songs and lots of them.” The roots of his genius? What the fuck does that even mean? And for the record, no, no it’s not.

You know who isn’t interviewed? Anyone who ever made music with him on any of the records we’re still listening to and talking about. You know what’s not discussed in enough detail? How he put together The Spiders From Mars. How he cultivated and nurtured other artist’s careers. How he pioneered the use of music videos. How he brought conceptual art techniques into the recording studio. How he never stopped listening to and being inspired by new music. I mean, for Christ’s sake, even the archival Bowie interview footage they use is boring.

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If you want to watch a great documentary, track down David Bowie – Five Years – you’ll have to find it on DVD or Blu-Ray, because sadly it’s not currently streaming – which charts his metamorphosis from hippy singer-songwriter to rooster mulletted glam rock icon and beyond, focusing on five distinct stages of his recording career. If you want to understand what made him great, listen to any three of his records from about 1970 to 1983 and note how they all sound completely different, yet are all obviously the work of the same artist. Unlike other artists, whose life story unlocks the mystery of their genius, getting bogged down in who David Bowie was as a man completely misses the point. As former flame Dana Gillespie says in one of The Man Who Changed The World few insightful moments “He was much better performing in a role.”

Benjamin H. Smith is a New York based writer, producer and musician who when he goes to get his hair cut says “Just make me look like Ron Asheton.” Follow him on Twitter:@BHSmithNYC.

Watch Bowie: The Man Who Changed The World on Netflix

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