Other than being two of my favorites, David Bowie and novelist Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials, The Book of Dust) have nothing much in common beyond having been born in post-war England within a few months of each other (1/47; 10/46). That, and having interesting minds and reading widely.
Now I find that BBC One, which I cannot watch in the US, has aired a new documentary by Alan Yentob, Angels and Daemons featuring Philip Pullman. While he seems to have had a busy career in the UK these past 43 years, most of the Bowie community will, I expect, agree that Yentob’s supreme accomplishment is Cracked Actor, during which he accompanies Bowie at his most vulnerable during the Aladdin Sane tour. When he watched Cracked Actor, Nicolas Roeg knew that he had found his star for The Man Who Fell to Earth, in spite of Bowie’s meager film experience totaling a few minutes of screen time. The Bowie that Yentob captured seemed himself an alien visitor.
Perhaps the best scene, one of the strangest in a strange filmscape, is Bowie singing along with Areatha Franklin’s “Natural Woman,” remarking on a fly in his milk, and questioning the wisdom of placing a wax museum in the desert. Start at around 5:17 in this clip. If the limo and chauffeur look familiar, it is because Roeg used them in his film, too.
In 1997, on the occasion of Bowie’s 50th birthday, Yentob interviewed him again. He’s a good interviewer, asking interesting questions and not interrupting his subject. I hope that Angels and Daemons will find a way into the US market.
Pullman and Bowie share one other thing: a respect for children and young people struggling against the totalitarian drive for power of mind and soul crushing adults. In recent weeks, with the emergence of high school activists against automatic rifles, Bowie has been quoted a lot (“And these children that you spit on/As they try to change their worlds/Are immune to your consultations/They’re quite aware of what they’re going through).
Pullman’s child heroes are certainly “quite aware of what they’re going through.”
With Bowie, his support for children and young people isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But I have seen more than a few, some public figures, many not, say that the sheer existence of Bowie made it possible to get through their teens. As Bowie entered his 50s and onwards, he became a patron to young visual and musical artists. For his first return to the stage, and one of his last public performances following his heart attack in 2004, he was the youngest person on stage by roughly 30 years when he appeared with Arcade Fire. See “Wake Up,” always a pleasure to return to.