JULIEN TEMPLE ON DAVID BOWIE
The director of Absolute Beginners, Julien Temple, on meeting, befriending and making movies with David Bowie. “He was a great source of strength, if you’re a little out of the ordinary…”
The punk director reflects on his relationship with the Thin White Duke.
I was still at school when I saw DAVID BOWIE live for the first time, Back In 1971.
I would have been 16 or 17, and AWOL — my parents had no idea where I was. Me and some friends had bunked off school and run off to Glastonbury for the weekend. It was a very different kind of festival then, much smaller, perhaps 5,000 people at most. You didn’t have to pay. Or at least, we didn’t.
Bowie had been scheduled to come on earlier in the evening, but everything was so chaotic that he didn’t appear. The whole thing had reached a climax with Traffic, and everyone had retired to their tents. I suppose because Bowie wasn’t an important act, he was told he could go on at four in the morning when everyone was asleep. But people got so energised by what he was doing on stage that they started running around waking everyone else up, saying, “You’ve really got to come and see this guy!”
It became a very strange and powerful moment. Dawn was breaking and there was this wonderful celestial chorus of birds accompanying him on his guitar: a guy in a dress with very long hair who looked like a woman. It was very otherworldly and spectral.
It’s a slightly prophetic coincidence that the next two times I saw David in the flesh after that Glastonbury performance, both were in cinemas of one sort or another.
After I had moved to London and begun my career as a director, I remember being at a screening of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis at The Everyman Cinema in Hampstead. Just before the lights went down and the film began, Bowie and his entourage came in. That was a memorable thing, because they looked so fantastically exotic and alien. Just to have them there in this tiny cinema watching this film with you was a powerful little moment for me.
The next time I almost met him was after I had made The Great Rock ’N’ Roll Swindle with The Sex Pistols. There was this rather pointless ritual of the ‘public screening’ you had to go through after you’d made a film in those days. You don’t have to do it now, but you had to advertise a free screening of the film so anyone who wanted could attend and complain to the censor if they wanted to. You had to do it by law, but no-one ever actually turned up.
So we had ours in the Fox Theatre at Soho Square. As usual, it was empty. I remember during the film I was looking at the print or something and I realised that one person had come in. This lone, shadowy figure was at the back of the screening room watching my film. The lights came up and I saw that it was David Bowie. He just zipped out after the film ended, but he was there watching it before anybody else had seen it.
There was this magpie-like quality to him. He liked to know what was going on before anyone else did. Which of course would become a defining aspect of him and his work.
The first meeting
I was in Los Angeles when I got a call saying he wanted me to work on a video for him, which would become Jazzin’ For Blue Jean (1984). I flew back to London straight away and we met. My memory of the location is fuzzy. It may well have been in an early manager’s flat just off the Edgware Road. What
I remember very clearly was my surprise at how ordinary he was. I was expecting The Man Who Fell To Earth. I’d seen that film of course and I thought he was extraordinary in it, but I was rudely surprised when I finally met him in the flesh. I wasn’t prepared for how unlike someone like Mick Jagger he was. I had worked with the Stones by then, and Mick is always ‘on’ as a star. But sometimes when you spoke to David you found yourself thinking, “My God, this can’t be David Bowie!” Then you realised that he was able to summon up this strange star power that he had at will.
So the first meeting was quite a disorienting experience. But my initial response to this puzzlingly divided person is what that short film then became about. I had become very interested in presenting different versions of the people I was working with within the same film. I’d shot a Come Dancing video for The Kinks with Ray Davies playing a spiv from the ’40s who then turns up in the present and watches himself performing in the band. So I suggested doing something along those lines, where David would play a very ordinary version of himself and also an exotic, star version of himself. He became very excited by that idea and got completely involved in the whole thing. And he wanted to make not a video, but a 20-minute short film that would have the song as a centrepiece. He was convinced he could get MTV to play it rather than just a three-minute promo.
Jazzin’ For Blue Jean
The ‘ordinary’ version of the character David plays in Jazzin’ For Blue Jean might be the nearest thing to the ‘real’ David Bowie that’s been put on screen. I think it certainly has echoes of things that were happening in his life. Particularly his relationship with his older half-brother Terry, which was very important to him. Terry was schizophrenic and unwell while we were shooting. But when David was a teenager, Terry had fed him stuff like the Beat Poets and the whole jazz world of the West End, which David devoured. He was this exotic person who turned David on to a lot of things.
We had a great deal of fun on the shoot, but I remember the worst moment came as we shot the exterior scenes of the nightclub that ‘ordinary’ David is trying to get into, round the back of The Savoy. It was all, of course, supposed to happen at night. To my horror I realised that, at about half three in the morning, it was already starting to get light. We hadn’t finished. It was like, “Shit, what do we do?” We’d spent two or three days shooting the film and we weren’t going to have an ending! But it turned out to be a brilliant moment, because David and I had to come up with something on the hoof. So at the end of the film, where David breaks the fourth wall by yelling at me, that came out of that screw-up. I think it still feels completely fresh today.
Bowie on Cinema
With film, as with books and art, David was a voracious autodidact. We watched them together a lot. Buñuel was a big thing for him, as well as Fritz Lang, Cocteau and Fassbinder.
We watched the Ealing Studios films together, too. He loved comedy, and was a very good comic actor. I remember watching Tony Hancock’s The Rebel with him, and him just laughing his head off all the way through. It may well have been his favourite film. I think he saw a connection with Hancock in that film, in a weird way. It’s about that boring nine-to-five world that at one point David was destined to go into. Hancock plays a man trapped in a routine, enmeshed by Victorian repressed emotions, whose bad art is a means of escape. But somehow this much-hyped yet crap art becomes the most soughtafter work in Paris. I think David felt that a little bit about himself, in a Man Who Sold The World kind of way. I was very aware, as I watched it with him, that he — probably more than anyone else — had broken down those repressive emotional hangovers that people had right after the War.
We shared a love of Hollywood musicals as well, which would fatefully lead us into Absolute Beginners.
I was reading the novel while we were shooting Jazzin’ For Blue Jean. I may have even given David a copy at that point. There’s a phrase in the opening chapter where author Colin Macinnes describes a glorious summer night in ’58 on Shaftesbury Avenue: “One day people will make musicals about this.” If only we’d known when we’d started making it…
The role of Vendice Partners was perfect for David, and he came on board quite early. Absolute Beginners is very much influenced by Vance Packard (whose book, The Hidden Persuaders, laid bare the dark arts of advertising in the late 1950s) and David had worked at an advertising agency when he was younger. He knew that world and had found it very cynical and disliked it. Primarily, though, I think the film gave him an outlet for his love of Soho.
Soho was a mythic place for him. It was where the ’60s had begun — but during the ’50s. A mysterious, exotic land his brother fed him stories of when he was a kid. It was bright lights and bohemian, and where the action was. I used to go on tours of Soho’s drinking dens with him, exploring the subterranean clubs and bars. I was astonished by how familiar he was with everybody, day and night. The afternoon clubs, and then the fivein-the-morning places like Gerry’s. He knew the barmen and the hookers really well. He didn’t drink very much but he smoked a lot, he liked that ambience.
And our Soho set was a miraculous thing. We had this idea of making a vast distillation of Soho, so all the good bits were right next to each other, but you still had the very strong sensation of actually being there. All the kids from the clubs in Soho were the extras. They would arrive direct from the real clubs and just be hanging out or mostly sleeping in the cages or basements of the set. When we started shooting, we had to go round waking them up. Even on days when he wasn’t working, he would just come to the set and hang out with these kids — he was a kind of godlike figure to them. I think he loved that set. Before it got knocked down we were both trying to find ways of keeping it as some kind of nightclub somewhere.
David was very supportive of me after Absolute Beginners (which was mauled by the critics and underperformed at the box office). We were thrown off the film, so we didn’t really get to finish it. He tried to get us back on it for some time, but that didn’t work. I think he was aware after its release that it had really fucked my career up. I couldn’t work in England after that. I had to go to America and he was very supportive of me there, he continued to work with me. We did a couple of videos together, Day-in Day-out and one for Tin Machine.
I’ve worked with a lot of musician-actors who’ve turned out to be a nightmare on set. Just getting any kind of cinematic performance out of them can become a battle of wills — the ‘don’t tell me what to do’ syndrome. But David was always very flexible and collaborative. Perhaps it came from his confidence, because he was a very good actor — particularly of comedy, though he didn’t often get to show that side of himself on screen. Once we’d decided on the idea, he became totally flexible and joyously collaborative. Then, like all the best actors, it was just a case of: how can we make it better? He
was capable of doing whatever you asked, and very focused when he wanted to crack something. When his character had to fall through a ceiling in Jazzin’ For Blue Jean, he was happy to do the stunt himself.
He was a bit fazed when I asked him to learn to tap-dance for Absolute Beginners. Then he went and mastered it in about a bloody week. The big dance number on the giant typewriter was incredibly difficult to shoot. And we had to fly him up onto this giant globe, so it wasn’t easy to find a point where he could stand up, especially as he was whizzing up and down on a wire. It took a lot of physical effort to land properly and gracefully, but he was determined to do it.
He did want to direct films, and I’m sad that he didn’t get to do that. He talked about making a film of Kerouac’s The Subterraneans. And maybe Last Exit To Brooklyn, which of course was made in the end (by Uli Edel). I think he would have been a very good director — I would have loved to see anything he did. Of course, his son is now carrying that torch.
I got the news on a bloody text. It was waiting for me when I woke up on the Monday morning. I was very lucky to know David, more closely obviously when we worked together than later on.
I vividly remember going skiing with him. I’m not a skier and he was very considerate of this terrified guy going down a mountain with him. He said he thought of me as a younger brother at times. He was keen to turn me on to things, like his brother had for him.
I’m not saying that this was special — there were people much closer to him than I was — but it was great to feel that you were close to someone so extraordinary and inspirational. Once you’ve had a relationship with someone like that, it remains with you.
Underneath the sadness and the terrible shock there is something joyful. I think there’s something positive in his death, which isn’t something you can normally say about people passing away. He left an incredible kind of updraught behind him that energised people in ways I don’t think they expected.
He was a great source of strength, if you’re a little out of the ordinary, if you were a little frightened, if you didn’t know who you were in life. He really connected and gave a lot of people a lot of strength.
Still, I find it very, very hard to think of him as history. He always seemed to be the future.