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Facing up to all of Bowie's changes

Collection offers gems but spends too much time in the '80s.

November 28, 2002|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

YOU might be tempted to call it a crash course for the ravers, but at four hours plus, a new two-disc DVD collection of David Bowie's music videos and other filmed performances weighs in more like a full-scale graduate course. By the time of your "Best of Bowie" finals, you might be ready to propose a revisionist perspective on the singer's reputation as a video visionary.

A pioneer he was, no doubt about that. The three staged, lip-synced performances produced and directed by photographer Mick Rock in 1972 -- "John, I'm Only Dancing," "The Jean Genie" and "Space Oddity" -- are among the early leaflets that would spark the video revolution, even if the fairly static footage isn't very interesting.

But for a complex, groundbreaking musician who's invariably described as a trend-setting force in a multitude of media and for someone whose involvement with the art world has taken him to the queasy cutting edge of contemporary visual expression, Bowie compiled is surprisingly bland, at least once the dust settles from his blazing arrival and before a burst of renewed inspiration toward the end of the line.

It's easy to figure out why when you look at the song list. The bulk of the material is drawn from Bowie's output in the 1980s, the most artistically barren stretch of his career. Even though some of the videos -- notably "Let's Dance," with its evocative, enigmatic depiction of Third World and modern world in uneasy contact -- make something out of very little, most of the work from the "Let's Dance" and "Tonight" albums is mired in cliched images and self-absorbed performances.

Not so in the early going. The set opens with three songs taped for the BBC show "Old Grey Whistle Test," with Bowie and his band the Spiders From Mars in their "Ziggy Stardust"-era iconic finery.

Bowie's unfiltered charisma and the understated urgency of "Oh! You Pretty Things" and "Five Years" make it obvious how this ambitious androgyne was able to seduce a generation. Maybe the liveliest clip from this period is a "Rebel Rebel" for Dutch television, with a bee's-eye fragmentation lens looming behind Bowie, who's done up as an eye patch-wearing, foppish buccaneer. Ah, Amsterdam.

"Young Americans," from a 1974 "Dick Cavett Show" appearance, marks the flowering of Bowie's black music infatuation (a young Luther Vandross is one of the backup singers) and is the first of several times that the Englishman dresses up to suggest Frank Sinatra.

The landmark "Low" and "Heroes" albums yielded few of the collection's videos, and they're followed by that long, dry stretch in the '80s. The gaudy surrealism of "Ashes to Ashes," with Bowie in his harlequin guise, is one bright spot. His cavorting with Mick Jagger on "Dancing in the Street" is not.

Gus Van Sant and Julien Temple are two of the name directors represented in the set. David Lynch isn't, but it's his spirit that hovers over the disquieting imagery in some of its newest entries. Bowie turned from empty commercialism to challenging obscurity in his '90s music, and the creep-out videos for such songs as "The Heart's Filthy Lesson" and "Little Wonder" have the energy and fearless invention you expect from the ostensible master of sound + vision.

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