David Bowie: Rare And Unseen

Published on December 21st, 2010 in: DVD, DVD/Blu-Ray Reviews, Music, Reviews |

By Christian Lipski

david bowie rare and unseen

Is it an indication that America’s litigious society has been imported to the UK, or just a production company with a guilty conscience? In addition to excited copy about the disc’s contents, the back cover of David Bowie: Rare and Unseen includes the following definitions: “Unseen: Believed unseen since first broadcast. Rare: Believed never released on DVD.” It’s unknown why they felt it legally prudent to put that text on the case, but at least the viewer knows what they’re getting, which is admirable. Regardless, if you live in the US, most if not all of the material on the 60-minute DVD is both rare and unseen.

The disc is primarily made up of interview footage split between 1976, 1987, and 1997, with the most interesting bits coming from a 1976 Russell Harty interview. Harty uses the relatively new medium of satellite technology to speak with Bowie, who is living in Los Angeles and has just wrapped filming of The Man Who Fell To Earth. I’ve heard descriptions of this interview that claim Bowie is unintelligible and drugged out, but the man on the DVD is entirely coherent, if a bit misleading. “I’m a very disciplined person,” he tells Harty, though he qualifies the word as not meaning that he stays to a regular schedule, but rather that he focuses on the things he is interested in. He is aloof, a bit of the Thin White Duke character he will soon tour, but also possibly as a reaction to Harty’s interview technique.

It’s a baiting, prying style that I can certainly see Bowie playing against. Harty may be hoping for much more sensationalism, as Bowie had refused to relinquish the satellite time to the Spanish government, who wanted to announce the death of General Franco. Bowie drinks his “Tree Top apple juice” and announces his return to England and plans to tour, though not what sort of show it will be. “I’m still inventing me at the moment,” he replies to Harty’s question about what kind of character he will be. “I know what songs I’m going to play, and for approximately how long, and I think that’s the most important part.” It’s a very interesting artifact of the time, though often a bit uncomfortable.

1976 is intercut with a 1997 interview of a decidedly different tone. The singer is relaxed and joking, talking about his past as well as his new album Earthling. He’s quite candid, for example in discussing his lack of a manager: “Look under any rock (& roll), and you’ll find one,” though he admits that managers who have grown up with the band like U2’s Paul McGuiness are the exception. Well at ease in the setting, Bowie amuses himself by making faces and doing impressions of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s “Pete & Dud” routines.

Also included is what appears to be promotional footage for the 1987 Glass Spider tour. Guitarists Peter Frampton and Carlos Alomar talk about their history with Bowie and the process of making the album Never Let Me Down. While their comments are interesting, and the shots of the band rehearsing on stage are fun, it’s kind of a shame that it’s all for the weakest album in his catalog. At the beginning of the DVD the producers use a section from this period where Bowie talks about “doing music and theater,” and then use it again later on the disc, which seems a bit artless. If the disc had begun with an obvious chronology of his comments used as a preview of what was to come, it would have made more sense, but in this case it comes off as padding the running time.

There are various other slices, from 1983 and 1978, the latter being a quick interview with a young Janet Street-Porter as Bowie prepares to go on stage. This small segment is the most engaging, as Bowie is amped up for the performance and at his most playful. At one point he talks hopefully about his performance in the recently-filmed Just A Gigolo, which he has famously described as “my 32 Elvis movies all rolled into one.”

As David Bowie: Rare and Unseen is an unauthorized production (or at least one constructed on the cheap), they do not have the rights to use Bowie’s music. There are bits of performance here and there, but the original songs are not available for the buffers between film segments. In an interesting move, they hired comedic impressionist Stevie Riks to sing like Bowie for these interludes. I have a feeling that the superfans this DVD will appeal to will simply gaze at the screen in horror. Riks does an adequate job of suggesting Bowie’s voice, but he’s more suited for parody than true reproduction.

As a final nod to the illegitimacy of the whole endeavor, following the film are several pages of disclaimer which claims their inclusion of short musical clips as being “fair use,” citing the appropriate passages of the copyright law and offering a reasoned argument as to how they apply to their clips. Finally, the producers encourage viewers to purchase the original works, “which we consider to be valid examples of twentieth century popular music and worthy of further study.” There is a lot of rationalization and apology going on for such a short disc.

David Bowie: Rare and Unseen, for all of its idiosyncrasies, has some valuable historic footage of David Bowie at points in his career that aren’t documented as well as they deserve. The casual fan will be entertained by the singer’s humor and artifice, but will ultimately wonder why it ever needed to be seen. For the Bowie fanatic who longs to see their hero’s past in full color and motion, Rare and Unseen is an archaeological treasure.

David Bowie: Rare and Unseen was released by MVD Visual and Wienerworld on November 23 and is available via See Of Sound.

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