Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 26, 2011)
As a long-time fan of the man’s work, I thought I’d give David Bowie: Rare and Unseen a look. The program purports to present a mix of little-viewed material across Bowie’s career.
How does it define its title’s terms? According to the case: “Unseen is believed unseen since first broadcast. Rare indicates believed never previously released on DVD.” That’s a broad disclaimer and it seems disingenuous – “unseen” has actually been seen! – but I don’t have any real objection to it, as it’s not like they’re referring to lots of commonly available material as “rare”.
The two main components here come from different decades. Much of the DVD consists of Russell Harty’s November 1975 interview with Bowie. Intended to promote the then-upcoming Station to Station album and tour, this segment later gained notoriety due to its nature. Harty chatted with Bowie via satellite, and Spanish leader Francisco Franco died right before its start. Apparently the Spaniards wanted to use the satellite to broadcast the news but Bowie wouldn’t let them! (At least that’s what Cameron Crowe claimed in a 1976 interview with Bowie.)
In addition to the Harty piece, the other major segment stems from a 1987 special about Bowie’s Glass Spider tour; it boasts some notes from guitarists Carlos Alomar and Peter Frampton in addition to Bowie. Otherwise, we find bits and pieces from other years. We find a fair amount of a 1997 interview to promote Earthling as well as some snippets from 1985ish; these also include remarks from directors Julien Temple and John Landis. Finally, a few minutes from a 1978 pre-concert chat show up as well.
Do you find any actual Bowie music in Rare? Yes, but not much. Most of the Bowie performances show up in the 1987 segments. During those, we hear a few very brief bits from videos, and we also hear parts of “Bang Bang” and “Day In Day Out” from rehearsals. In addition, the show tosses in a few other very quick auditory moments such as a few seconds of “Width of a Circle” from Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture.
These are fine, and in the case of the 1987 rehearsals, occasionally fun. Unfortunately, the program also includes some God-awful impersonations of Bowie done by Stevie Riks. I’d seen some of Riks’ work via Youtube; he impersonates a slew of musicians, and does all of them pretty poorly. Like those others, his version of Bowie is more caricature than impersonation. He sounds little to nothing like Bowie, and his renditions are terrible. At least they’re brief.
All of this means that if you want unusual musical clips via Rare, you’ll get no satisfaction. However, if you’d like some interesting old interviews, the show has merit. I was especially happy to see the Harty piece, even though on its own, it’s not actually any good. Harty tends to ask stupid and/or obvious questions, and Bowie’s on some other planet. It’s a safe bet that he was stoned at the time – I’m pretty sure it’s difficult to find shots of non-stoned Bowie from 1975/76 – and he seems eager to stonewall Harty. Bowie comes across as distant and imperious, which leads to a certain perverse entertainment value. I do love the man’s music from this period - Station to Station is as good as it gets – but he sure does seem to have been a pretty awful person in that era.
Bowie’s music was much crummier in 1987, but at least he appears more with it during the rehearsal segments. He also comes across bit full of himself – after all, this was his post-Let’s Dance Mega Pop Star Phase – but the clips are usually good. I like the quick rehearsal shots, and we get a few interesting observations. I don’t think anything amazing emerges, but the comments are worthwhile.
Strangely, the Bowie of 1997 seems more manic than the one of coke-fueled 1975. He’s also more coherent and a whole lot chattier. The 1997 Bowie almost acts as a Greek chorus to discuss the excesses of his past, and he’s pretty funny as well. As he matured, Bowie appeared to become more comfortable with himself, and that shows in these snippets.
That said, the pre-show 1978 clip remains my favorite. Bowie is much more with it than he was two-plus years earlier, and he displays charm with the tall female interviewer. The piece is short but it has an impact.
Rare comes with somewhat haphazard editing, and it lacks anything that makes this Bowie fan really sit up and take notice. That said, it includes a fairly good collection of interview clips. It’s nothing remarkable, but it’s enjoyable for Bowie buffs.