Playtime (1967, dir. Jacques Tati)

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

52-film Challenge, week 5

I have seen many (and at the same time, also not nearly enough) of the films often ranked in the top 100 of the “greatest films of all time” — as though time was over (or making films was over) and a final judgement could be rendered.

Playtime, made by and starring Jacques Tati, is a bona-fide masterpiece and visually one of the greatest films made … thus far. Forget Avatar, this 70mm exploration of humanity versus modernity blends several distinct film genres into one, with both deep philosophical and funny results.

In its way, it is a silent movie. Not literally of course, but dialogue is generally not viewed as that important and often pushed into the background. Actions take center stage and often key “gags” are performed simultaneously, meaning viewers have to keep their eye on virtually everything happening in the (wide) picture frame, and their ears open for any snippets of important “story” detail.

It is a film that demands, and rewards, your full attention.

Mostly, Playtime doesn’t really have a story as such: it is structured more like a “day in the life of” type film. That said, we do more-or-less follow a couple of key characters around a few city blocks over the course of around 18 hours — Tati himself, playing the hapless everyman of Monsieur Hulot (which appeared in some of Tati’s earlier films, most notably Mon Oncle), and the American tourist Barbara, who came to Paris to see the famous sights, but can’t seem to find them except for glimpses and moments.

The theme of the film seems to be that Paris is modernizing, and losing its character — but that humanity (at least as embodied by the Parisians in the film) fight back with chaos against the new, bland, glass-and-steel city they find themselves in.

Anyone who enjoys architecture as a topic of sometimes-appreciation, sometimes-debate — like me — will be positively swimming in the gigantic custom-built set of ultra-modern (and still uncannily relevant, 55 years later) “Tativille,” where traditional Paris is only seen in reflections in the endless glass doors or symbolised by a lonely flower shop on one of the exceptionally-clean street corners.

It doesn’t matter if you already know M. Hulot from the earlier films, his character is a universal silent-film comic archetype: a good person who continually falls into comedic misfortune or unwittingly helps drive events in the film through his difficulty in this unfamiliar environment.

Where nearly everyone wears smart suits or fashionably bland dresses, Hulot primarily wears a mack (overcoat), a traditional hat, ill-fitting clothes, and carries a pipe. He is a person living in the mid-60s, but not at ease with the pace of change and modernisation. The influence this must have had on Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean can scarcely be overstated.

Barbara, the tourist, often separates herself from the sheep-like tourist group she is with, determined to see the area on her own terms — but like a lost lamb she is often rounded up again and herded along to wherever the next encounter is supposed to be. When she sees only the reflection of the Eiffel Tower, she turns to gaze at it longingly — but she is miles away, in this concrete jungle.

Hulot stumbles around the film — seen more often than any other single character, but likewise often disappears for a while — bouncing from one hapless round of mostly-visual sight gags to another, all within a jungle of beautiful but sterile steel-and-glass storefronts and offices. One of the early scenes shows M. Hulot attempting to meet with an official of some sort, but the two only rarely intersect in the rat’s maze of a corporate cubicle farm (predicting that trend over 20 years early).

M. Hulot gets the overhead view of the maze he is in.

Barbara and M. Hulot do run across each other increasingly as the film goes on, because they are nearly always in what feels like about a four-block radius of each other. Unlike most films that feature strangers meeting, it never threatens to become a romantic comedy, and this is refreshing.

As mentioned, sound (and music) happens in this film to distinguish it from a silent film, but in the early scenes it’s used more like a paintbrush to set tones or support the visual language, and only much later in the film do both sound and human dialogue really come forward as equal elements.

Things build slowly, focusing on sight gags early on (and again, you have to pay nearly as much attention to the background as the foreground to get a feel for everything that is happening), but over time the film slyly shifts from being fascinated by the buildings and settings to focusing on the increasingly-chaotic humans as the action turns to the opening night of a not-quite-ready nightclub opening.

Eventually, full-blown chaos explodes among both the established characters and the myriad newcomers into the tale, but there isn’t really a climax in the traditional sense: things hit a peak, but as the dawn breaks we follow the climb-down and emerging calm that will reset the picture back to nearly the beginning, as the club empties, people find their way home, and Barbara gets back on the bus to go back to the airport — but not without spending just a bit of time with the old-fashioned gentleman that she’s been running into all evening.

At two hours, I’m not sure if modern attention spans will have as much love for Playtime as I do –– but the payoff on this film is enormous, and on multiple levels. It is a masterclass in visual comedy, multi-focus direction, sound as a background rather than foreground tool, societal commentary, and a celebration of messy humanity against a sterile, unfeeling backdrop.

Shot with 65mm film for a 70mm release, Playtime is ideal for HD and 4K TVs because everything, all the way back, is in focus. This gives Tati the opportunity to have lots of “business” happening throughout the entire frame, compared to the usual focusing on the main thing the director wants you to notice. This director wants you to notice it all.

So much glass everywhere in our modern world.

The colour hues and theme of automation uber alles are stunningly gorgeous and, unlike most films of this period, would easily convince some viewers that it was made much closer to the current year than it was. Its contrast of de-humanising and re-humanising themes is endearing and still relevant.

The prolonged pre-production, wildly expensive full-size sets and clever illusions, the perfectionistic direction of almost every actor in shot and much more establish this film as a beautifully synchronised machine with only small moments of anarchy at the beginning, but by the end the wheels have completely come off in joyous defiance of sharp angles, and a smooth-running society.

It is a joyous movie that absolutely bankrupted and ruined Tati’s reputation, but he felt it had to be made at all costs — and he was right. It is an utter masterpiece, and nearly as relevant today as it was in 1967.

I’ll avoid talking about the ending of the film, but after (finally) some actual human moments in the denouement, Tati saves his best and most withering (visual) comment for the final scene. If viewers have tapped into Playtime’s zeitgeist and stayed with it, they are richly rewarded as it fades to black.

You’ll have to trust me on this one, but this scene is very funny.

The Daughter of Dawn (1920, dir. Norbert Myles)

52 film challenge (week 4)
⭐️⭐️⭐️

This is one of the films that film-history majors watch, and pretty much nobody else (at least not anymore), but it’s actually a little bit fascinating.

This silent film is a non-patronizing look at life among the Kiowa and Comanche tribes — set in a time before they were herded into reservations and their previous way of life forcibly taken away from them, but acted by people this had happened to some 50 years earlier.

The story is a pretty straightforward “love triangle” story, but what’s amazing about this silent film is that the entire cast, without exception, is portrayed by Native Americans (some 300 all together), and featuring authentic outfits, props, and tepees provided by the tribes.

The acting is of course variable, but convincing enough to impart the story of one brave who feels he “deserves” the chief’s daughter and attempts to force her into marriage, while the young girl has already fallen for another brave. True love wins out, which itself is something of a radical idea given the time when the film came out.

The portrayal of the women of the tribes is surprisingly much less patronising than expected; the villain of the piece Black Wolf does have another who pines for him (Red Wing), but he callously ignores her in favor of the Daughter of Dawn (yes, that’s her name). He spends most of the movie creeping around and observing from a distance in the standard silent-movie way, helping us uncover developments, whereupon he discovers his rival While Eagle and plots his downfall.

The Daughter of Dawn and her true love, White Eagle.

The simple story is kind of excuse to recreate something like pre-reservation life among two tribes, including great landscape shots of the plains (the film was made in Oklahoma), hunting scenes featuring actual wild buffalo, daring stunts, and some time spent on the day-to-day life of the people. Director Norbert Myles seems to have wanted to a documentary-style drama rather than stigmatize the “savages” as was more the style for the time.

Actual First Nation peoples! Actual outfits, props, and tepees provided by the tribes themselves!

On a story level, this wasn’t that far removed from The Searchers (1954), but apart from the interesting historical context and backstory of the film itself — it was presumed lost for almost 90 years before mysteriously resurfacing in 2012 — it’s not a film most non-native people would seek out.

It’s pretty well-made and sympathetic for a 1920 silent film, and benefits strongly from an authentic Native American cast. The plot is very well-worn nowadays, but I would imagine it captured audiences’ imaginations — and maybe won over a few “paleface” hearts and minds — in its day.

The Tragedy of MacBeth (2021, dir. Joel Cohen)

52 Film Challenge, week 3
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I’ve been saving this film since it came out since the trailer alone told me what I needed to know about it — neo-expressionist, Escher-influenced, exceptionally-sharp B&W mixing stagecraft and filmcraft (and witchcraft) with stunning performances and visuals that I would eat up like candy.

At just over an hour and 40 minutes, this might be seen by some as an attempt to get theatre-resistant souls to give this major Shakespearean outing a fair shake —

but the substantial trimming of the text is so skillfully done that the stark and incredible visuals fill in what’s not there with great artistry. The speeches that I recalled most vividly from the many productions I have seen in theatres were still there.

About the only bad thing I can say about this is an unfair complaint: I never find Shakespeare’s lines quite as musical when they are done by American voices. That is not to, in the least, denigrate the performances of the leads — Frances McDormand as Lady MacBeth (stunningly well portrayed) and Denzel Washington as MacBeth himself, though he failed to connect with me quite as much as some of his predecessors in the part.

I liked the variations, sincerity, and styling Washington gave to his speeches, and he joins a company of fine actors, from Bertie Carvel (in a very fine turn as Banquo), to Alex Hassel as the impossibly thin, impossibly beautiful, impossibly expressive Ross, to Harry Melling as Malcolm (another good turn from this maturing actor). This being filmed entirely on a soundstage (in California, sadly) gave it a beautifully claustrophobic atmosphere, even when scenes were set outdoors. A triumph of cinematography, this.

Alex Hassell as Ross nearly steals the picture, except when Frances McDormand is on.

Visually, pacing-wise, and performance-wise, this version punches all of my buttons and while I have seen a handful of filmed MacBeths before, this one is far and away my favourite. It’s like no version of the show seen before, and combined with some sparing but incredibly clever effects to enhance the witch(es) — with a nod of awe to Kathryn Hunter for her stellar performance — it is as riveting to watch as any of Laurence Olivier’s Technicolour (or B&W) Shakespearean movies (one of which actually has Melling’s grandfather in a notable role).

Holy crap, this scene.

A mention must be made of Carter Burwell’s musical score, which is minimal and rarely calls attention to itself but which is yet another element setting the mood, which is what Coen has really brought to this production (other than some well-placed scissors to the script). Although there were a few fleeting moments when I wished a line or an actor’s look had been done a bit differently, or if a scene had lingered just a bit more, these were but quickly drowned by the glory of the effects, the sets, the cinematography, the lighting, and all the other elements.

Finally, I am not yet settled on Coen’s main addition to the tale, that being some staging that suggests a non-traditional interpretation of the third murderer. But perhaps I will drink in this sweet wine of a film again and ponder on it. This unconventional movie took some risks, and for me most of them paid off handsomely.

“Low” at 45

Guest post by Tony Visconti:

It’s anniversary time for David Bowie’s Low album. I’ve commented on it before, but certain elements of it are worth repeating.

For me it started with a phone call from Switzerland, where David was living at the time. He said that he and Brian Eno were working on a certain concept for a radically new album idea (and it was about time somebody did that). He briefly described the minimalist approach and plans for instrumental tracks, a first for him, but relying heavily on Brian’s great sonic landscape compositions. He asked me to join them in the ‘Honky Chateau’ in the outskirts of Paris, France, and cautioned that as it was experimental I might be wasting a month of my life for nothing.

I replied that spending a month of my life with you and Eno was worth it!!!

We sequestered ourselves for the first two weeks. I ended up not shaving or wearing shoes as my life consisted of dining room three times a day and studio most of the day, then the ‘haunted’ bedroom at night (but that’s another story).

Amazingly all of the tracking was done in two weeks, first with the band of Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and George Murray. In the second week Brian and David laid down the bed of the ‘ambient music’ tracks. My new fangled Eventide Harmonizer 910 had a lot to do with the sonic nature of the tracks, not only the snare drum sound, but in the instrumental compositions too. David and I spent two more weeks with the overdubbing and mixing.

On the day of the final mix David asked for a cassette of all the mixes. He had quite a lot to drink. When I handed the cassette to him he waved it in the air and exclaimed, “We have an album,” considering we were never sure we did have an album until the final days of mixing.

David left the control room very excited, but we quickly heard a rumbling sound immediately afterwards and ran to the staircase. David had fallen down and was lying at the bottom in pain, but holding the cassette over his head. He was fine the next morning.

We never wavered from the decisions to make the album as radical as it sounded, even though critics panned it for the most part. Okay, so it wasn’t Ziggy Stardust II, but the influence it had on musicians, to open up more, gave birth to new genres and Pop music as an Art form.

Ugetsu (Monogatari) (雨月物語, lit. “Rain-moon Tales”) 1953, dir. Kenji Mizoguchi

2023 52-film challenge: week 2

The late 1940s and much of the 1950s was an interesting time for the film world, particularly in the West. In addition to filmmaking advances from other countries, interest in ”foreign” films and styles of filmmaking/storytelling grew at international competitions, increasing diversity and influencing North American and European filmmakers for decades afterwards.

The main characters (L-R): foolish Tōbei, prideful Genjūrō, Genjūrō’s wife Miyagi, their son Genichi, and Tōbei’s wife Ohana.

This movie, usually shortened to just Ugetsu, is an interesting film because it weaves some timeless story ideas together: a clever allegorical tale of the delusions of men — and the subsequent wartime suffering of their wives and children, shown in a almost-feminist sympathetic light — alongside a more traditional Japanese ghost story, offering up a meaningful anti-war theme based on the lives of the innocent victims of war.

The story is based on tales from a book written in 1776 (when another more famous war was going on), and is set during Japan’s prolonged civil war, which finally ended in 1600.

We focus on a small family: the potter Genjūrō, his wife Miyagi, and their young son Genichi. The other two main characters are Genjūrō’s brother-in-law Tōbei and his wife, Ohama. Both of the two men have big dreams: Genjūrō dreams of having money by selling his pottery in larger towns, while Tōbei is almost feverish with a desire to become a samurai.

Genjūrō’s more modest and achievable aims at least are rewarded; Tōbei’s goal is sort-of achieved in a rather comical way, but their visions of success both drive them to leave behind their families to seek their fortunes, causing mostly suffering compared to the poor-but-happy lives they already had.

Tōbei, as is his habit, stumbles into enough dumb luck to finally get rewarded as a samurai general, complete with armor, horse, and retinue.

Genjūrō, in town to spend all his money on gifts for his new wife, slowly discovers that she and the villa don’t actually exist any longer; he has been seduced by a ghost, and living in a dream world that makes him forget his real wife and son. A priest he bumps into gives him a reality check, and paints prayers upon his body to help dispel the ghost and the dream-world.

The backdrop of all this is the civil war. Miyagi and Genichi, left behind by Genjūrō in his quest for larger towns to sell to, are forced from their village, with Miyagi robbed and stabbed by soldiers. Ohama, who loses Tōbei in the crowd of the city, must fend for herself and is eventually turned into a prostitute.

Tōbei, who finally has a little money from selling Genjūrō’s pottery, blows it on armour and tries to get into a samurai camp, only to be rejected.

Meanwhile, Genjūrō has had an encounter with lady of royalty who seduces him back to her villa, and uses her sensual regalness to trick him into marriage.

The triumphant Tōbei wants to return to his village to show his wife his new hero status, but his men persuade him to stop by a brothel for the evening first — where he finds his wife Ohama as one of the working women there. He is shocked back to reality by the discovery, and promises to give up his status in order to buy back her honour.

Genjūrō returns to the now ruined village and finds Miyagi and his son in their former house, relieved that at least his kiln has survived the soldiers’ devastation. He takes some food from the joyful Miyagi, who refuses to let him confess his sins, and quickly falls asleep beside his son.

In the morning, he awakes to find only Genichi still with him. A village elder discovers them and tells Genjūrō that Miyagi died from her injuries some time back, and is buried outside. The elder has been taking care of Genichi since.

Genjūrō and Tōbei reunite in the village, and promise to work hard for the benefit of Genichi and Ohana, who has had her honor restored via Tōbei’s giving up on his false success.

The film is shot with interesting lighting, camera angles (extensive use of crane shots, allowing for a mythical look), and extensive use of both traditional western soundtrack and spotlighting ancient Japanese music.

Although Ugetsu is mostly of interest to film history students these days, the movie is nonetheless a still-compelling tale of morality woven with supernatural elements. The clues that Lady Wakasa is not who she seems start with her Noh-theatre style and hikimayu-style “eyebrows,” while Tōbei’s story is told in traditional Japanese comic-underdog style.

The skill in the filmmaking blends these oddly-compatible journeys together well, and (surprisingly for the time) does not shirk from showing how their families suffer because of the mens’ chasing of dreams.

As an introduction to director Mizoguchi, it makes me want to check out his other international hit, Sansho the Bailiff (1954). Because of its towering international achievements in awards and screenings outside Japan, the film has consistently placed in many “all time greatest films” lists — and is still on the revered Sight&Sound top-100 list, having resided there at different rankings since the first such list in 1962.

76 years of David Bowie

Happy birthday, sir.

More soon.

Love, Chas

(photo credit: Coco (Corrine) Schwab)

B&W photo of David Bowie from his Man Who Fell to Earth period, having just blown out candles on a birthday cake.

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

52 Films Challenge: Film 1

On a suggestion from Jason A. Miller and inspired further by Drew Meyer, I’ve joined a little social challenge to watch 52 movies in 2023, at least one per week. I may or may not binge a few during relaxed periods like this one in case I can’t fulfill a given week’s goal. I’ll try to avoid any “spoilers” in my comments on them, and try instead to persuade people to look up (or avoid) the film.

First up: Battleship Potemkin (1925) by a 27-year-old (!) Sergei Eisenstein.

Although very basic and propagandistic by today’s standards, this is a masterpiece of early Russian cinema and brought the now-familiar technique of “montages” into the vocabulary of silent film, a way to show a number of shots as a summation of what was going on. Oddly, I had not actually seen the entire film previously.

It is based on the true story of the ship, which in 1905 helped kick off a revolution against the authoritarian Tsar’s government and military after a mutiny caused by the Tsarist officers’ cruelty and indifference to the suffering of the crew. The film is also noted for being among the very few that portrayed graphic violence and some gore on-screen (rather than cutting away or minimizing it) at the time.

Modern viewers may find its points laboured and the editing disruptive at times, but as a piece of military history and for the remarkable “Odessa Steps” sequence that represents the cruelty and tyranny of the Tsar’s forces, it remains an interesting look at some of the events that shaped Russia for generations. At less than 1h20m, it’s a pretty easy watch if you enjoy long-form silent movies (the score on the version I saw featured lots of Shostakovich).

In the Corner of the Morning in the Past: The Width of a Circle (1970/2021) – Disc 1 (of 2)

Editor’s note: in the final hour of the final day of Bowie Memorial weekend, here at last is the first half of the review of The Width of a Circle. At some point well into the weeds editing the second part (coming next weekend), it slowly dawned on me that this was going to be very, very long as a comprehensive review and that I needed the Buzzsaw of Aggressive Editing to get it down to a manageable size.

I failed to do this, so instead I present the edited version of the review covering the first disc of the box set. This one’s for you, diehard Bowiephiles.


If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Bowie in his early career as a songwriter/performer, it is that he was very heavily influenced at different parts of his first two decades on the scene by either other performers that he liked (particularly for his pre-first album singles), and by musical people — sometimes musicians, but also producers — that offered him new directions and inspirations. This 2CD book set, a great companion to Bowie’s second self-titled album and a fascinating look at things to come, is a little miracle that documents the in-between period that would profoundly change his musical direction and life — primarily thanks to Tony Visconti and Michael “Mick” Ronson.

Although it will likely never be in my top 10 Bowie “albums,” the purpose of The Width of a Circle is to document much of what Bowie was up to in the first half of 1970, starting with an appearance on a now-lost BBC radio “in concert” type programme called “The Sunday Show” hosted by the legendary BBC Radio One DJ, John Peel. The fact that we can hear this at all is a gift from the aforementioned Mr. Visconti, who taped the show because of his appearance playing bass for David. The original cassette has been cleaned up as much as possible, but it is still a radio broadcast originally preserved on home taping equipment, and there’s not much getting around that.

The show was actually recorded on the 5th of February, and was a rather long day — rehearsal started at 3:30 in the afternoon and the show was recorded at 7:30, with the band finally leaving at midnight. What makes this particular radio appearance so uniquely important to Bowiephiles — and make no mistake, this set is aimed squarely at that market and is likely to be of lesser appeal to the casual fan — is that this marks Mick Ronson’s debut as Bowie’s new guitarist. As evidenced by the very marked change of direction taken for his next album, The Man Who Sold the World (aka Metrobolist) Ronson went from having only been introduced to Bowie two days before this radio performance to effectively becoming Bowie’s musical director in very short order.

Although he was now a public name for the Top 5 single “Space Oddity” from his second self-titled album (something Peel seized on with his typical droll humour), the album had not actually done especially well. Thus, the second reason why this set is important to fans: it is a truly illuminating document of an artist in transition, not sure of where he’s going (yet), but perceptive enough to know that things had to change.

Funnily enough, Bowie got this BBC Radio gig because the “Sunday Show” producer, Jeff Griffin, had attended one of Bowie’s “An Evening With” cabaret-type shows in London. At this point Bowie was already crafty enough to mix some selections from his first, more pop/Anthony Newly-style album and his markedly more “hippie” stylings to make for a decent show, but for the radio gig he chose to mix it up even further — throwing in some covers alongside mostly songs from his second album (pointedly omitting the hit single), with only brief nod to his past (the unused song “Karma Man,” from his flirtation with Decca, which now fit in better with his current hippier material).

Those in attendance for the recording heard largely different versions of Bowie’s selections, including the very beginnings of the more electric-led sound Ronson would bring to the table, plus a bit of Jacques Brel and a sampling of Biff Rose, and even the not-yet-finished “Width of a Circle” for which this collection is named, along with a preview of his new “next single,” which turned out to be “The Prettiest Star,” the official single release of which featured Marc Bolan, rather than Ronson, on lead guitar. The only song in the “Sunday Show” set that really sounded like the recorded version was “An Occasional Dream.”

As if to highlight that he was aware of the ch-ch-ch-changes he was going through (sorry), the show opened with Bowie alone on 12-string for the first four songs, then joined by Visconti and Cambridge to put some meat on those acoustic bones for a couple of numbers before finally adding Ronson, who started off subtle and gradually took the musical spotlight off Bowie, allowing him to sing harder and louder as the set got progressively more rock-orientated.

Ronson later said that he had had to learn the songs reasonably quickly, and mostly by just watching Bowie play and improvising complementary sounds. That he could do this as well as he managed (though the whole band still sounded a bit rough on most numbers) speaks to Ronson’s remarkable ear for music and foreshadows the huge contribution he was yet to make to Bowie’s songs, style, and arrangements. The gig must have greatly impressed Bowie, who asked Ronson — during an interview portion between songs — if he would join the band for the upcoming tour.

Cambridge, Bowie, and Ronson rehearsing for The Sunday Show concert

Bowie cheekily opened his set with a cover of “Port of Amsterdam,” which today is recognised as one of Brel’s classics but at the time wasn’t as widely known. This and the other solo numbers were the sort of stuff David was doing in the “Evening With” show, and showed off his strength as a player and singer. The second number was particularly well-suited to the format, “God Knows I’m Good” from the second album. It’s a classic Dylanesque story-song format that Bowie would revisit periodically, particularly in “Life on Mars,” but in both this busking version and the album version, the song remains a poignant portrait of the difficulties of working-class like in the UK at the time, as well as a sly comment on religious quandaries.

Bowie then briefly explains to Peel and the audience who the heck Biff Rose is, and embarks on one of Rose’s more eccentric tunes, “Buzz the Fuzz.” It feels out of place with the rest of the show but I’m sure Bowie found it funny, and his performance is enthusiastic. This is followed by “Karma Man” which wouldn’t have been out of place on either the second album or Hunky Dory. The studio song got a proper release (of sorts) on Decca’s too-soon compilation The World of David Bowie later in the year, and was finally properly appended to the Space Oddity album (as we often call it to avoid naming confusion with the first album) for its 2010 reissue.

Cambridge and Visconti then come on stage to accompany Bowie on “London Bye Ta-Ta,” which still feels like a holdover from his first album in its mix of whimsicality and sixties-style Kinks-ian melody. The addition of bass and drums really add to the sound after 15 minutes of only guitar. Next up was the most “rehearsed”-sounding number, because this was the band that recorded it for the album — “An Occasional Dream,” with a nearly-identical performance. Not the only ode to his failed relationship with Hermione Farthingale we’ll be hearing in this box set!

Ronson then joins the band to take lead on “The Width of a Circle” — an incomplete calling-card for the direction of the next album, which turns Bowie’s folkie and spiritual tendencies into a dark and foreboding inward journey, as much inspired by his brother Terry’s seizures as it was by Bowie reading too much Nitzsche. While far shorter and far less hard-rock in this performance than it would become on MWSTW/Metrobolist, it was still a hell of a gear shift on this performance, dealing as it does with hell, Buddhism, a battle with one’s subconscious “monsters,” homosexual encounters with a demon, and other dark themes.

The song, interestingly enough, is named after the title of a painting Bowie’s childhood friend and former band mate George Underwood did based on his impression of a rough mix of Bowie’s second album (it appeared as the rear illustration on the finished release). Bowie for years referred to it as one of his most personal songs, “really reaching into myself” to document a period covering his late teen years, his dabbling in Buddhism, and his fears stemming from the mental illness tendencies within his family.

Sneak preview over, the band play some rough-ish takes on a few songs from the Space Oddity album, starting with “Janine,” a song of some disapproval towards Underwood’s then-girlfriend. Although far lighter with its Elvis Presley type style, there’s still some dark undercurrents cutting through it — after all, who writes a song attempting to convince a pal that his girlfriend isn’t who she seems?

Then came a pair of disturbingly violent Bowie anthems, “The Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud” and “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” the former of which is a sort of Buddhist-based fable dealing with the quest for the true self — with a dose of saviour complex to be explored more fully later — while the latter more explicitly deals with the singer’s battle with his inner anger and his bitterness over the Beckenham Arts Lab. This was a theme which would also resurface in future albums, and which definitely found an outlet in Ronson as the pair’s relationship progressed.

Wisely changing tack, it was time for another Biff Rose cover, “Fill Your Heart,” which was an upbeat number with no unsettling portents whatsoever (and thus had to wait until Hunky Dory before finally getting on a Bowie album), and it paired perfectly with the next song, the world debut of “The Prettiest Star” — primarily because several ideas were lifted from Rose’s “Angel Tension,” from the same album Bowie had covered “Buzz the Fuzz” and “Fill Your Heart” — clearly The Thorn in Mrs. Rose’s Side made a huge impression on young Davy Jones, and went on to deeply influence Hunky Dory.

“The Prettiest Star” is an unabashed love song of the calibre not seen since he was swooning over Hermione Farthingale in Feathers or writing about their subsequent breakup — only this time his inspiration was his new love, Angela Barrett (whom he would marry the following month) and the use of a catchier style. The concert finished up with a full performance of “Cygnet Committee” and a rather loose (and truncated for time, but still enjoyable) version of “Memory of a Free Festival,” both of which fall firmly into Bowie’s growing stable of “bitter songs with lovely tunes and singing.”

The performance taken in full really shows off Bowie’s talent in singing and songwriting, albeit it also inadvertently showcases his unsettled and somewhat bipolar mental state (he was 23 at the time of this recording). Some of the more charming moments come during some of the repartee between him and Peel as the latter tried to kid around with David regarding album names and song titles. Once the full band were onstage, Peel asked Bowie if he would tour with this group, and the reply was a dry impersonation of Peel’s voice and humour with a witty “looking at this lot, no” — which he quickly dropped and answered “yes,” then proceeding to invite Ronson officially onboard. To all and sundry’s good fortune, Ronson said yes to Bowie’s proposal — and a real match made in rock-n-roll heaven was born.

We’ll take a look at the second disc and the accompanying “book” next time — which is more of a mixed bag compared to this one — but if you consider yourself a Bowie fan, particularly of his pre-Ziggy albums, then you want this. This first disc is “just” a live radio concert with a small audience, but the start of many great things. For fans and collectors, the alternative versions from the Space Oddity (aka David Bowie/Man of Words, Man of Music) album — as well as the other material, and the band that did them — makes this an important document of an important year in Bowie’s life.

Whilst you wait …

There will be some delay to today’s planned post due to radio and podcasts commitments, but it should be available sometime tomorrow (in the null space between Bowie’s birth and death anniversaries). In the meantime, I’m pleased to report that an anthology book on Bowie that I contributed to is still available. Me and the Starman is not a book on Bowie himself, but rather on the incredible impact his art had on the lives of his fans.

It was originally released in July of 2019, and I am proud that the initial run completely sold out. I know more than a few of the other contributors to the book, and greatly enjoyed reading about their own personal “Bowie journeys.” The UK website We Are Cult has opted to reprint the book, and as with the previous edition, all profits from it go towards supporting the work of Cancer Research UK.

Softback physical copies can be obtained from the Canadian and UK Amazon stores, or with limited availability from the US Amazon site. I hope you’ll enjoy my essay therein, entitled “Everyone Says Hi.”

Please note: This book is not to be confused with another book widely available called The Starman and Me by Sharon Cohen (nowt to do with Bowie as far as I can tell, but a praised debut novel).

Happy 75th, David

Guest post by Tony Visconti: “On what would be David Bowie’s 75th birthday I would like to present this reimagined version of his Where Are We Now video. The author is a Facebook friend, Antonio Jesus Reyes. Needless to say, every day, I miss my dear friend of almost 50 years. We spent many months together making his last album, Blackstar. On another note this would have been my father’s 105th birthday.”

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