A Portrait In Flesh: ‘Cracked Actor’ at 45

❉ How did a BBC documentary become a part of Bowie iconography?

A little over forty-five years ago, a rock music documentary – a rockumentary, if you will – was first broadcast, on Sunday 26 January, 1975, at 10.15pm as part of BBC1’s arts strand Omnibus. Cracked Actor: A Film About David Bowie purported to give UK audiences an inside view of his North American 1974 tour, the Diamond Dogs Revue, alternating between performance footage and exclusive chat with Halloween Jack. As if to underline his superstar status since leaving the UK (permanently, as it turned out) for the “myth-land” of America, a camera crew trawled Bowie across Hollywood, with Bowie holding court from hotel rooms, backstage dressing rooms and in limos, intercut with concert footage from the LA Universal Amphitheatre.

Cracked Actor: A Film About David Bowie was unique in that it proved the perfect mesh of subject and medium, rising above its transient status in those pre-VHS days to become a part of Bowie iconography.  For fa-fa-fashion conscious UK Bowiephiles – starved of the Dame’s appearances on their cathode ray screens for almost two years – it offered their first glimpse, in sound and vision, of the wedge-haircut, box-jacketed proto-Soul Man ahead of Young Americans’ March 1975 release, but also provided the fan faithful with a motherlode of ready-made quips from his master’s voice (“I never wanted to be a rock and roll star! Honest, guv!”) and ultimately a wealth of genuinely iconic images that would become part of the Bowie canon: The sight of an impassive, spaced-out, Bowie gliding along in backseat of a long black limousine would reappear in The Man Who Fell To Earth, and be evoked in the opening scene of the music video for 2013’s The Stars (Are Out Tonight).

Alan Yentob: “When he’s in the back seat of the limo in Cracked Actor he says this line that many people now know off by heart. In fact, I remember Kate Moss repeating it to me word for word… That was basically his screen test for The Man Who Fell To Earth. The notion of this Martian let loose in America is of course what Nic Roeg was thinking of as well. The enigmatic figure wearing a big hat in the back of a car is where he got that idea from.”

The accidental art of Cracked Actor is that although we see Bowie at his most numbed-out and alienated by fame, glimmers of the Brixton boy sneak through the façade such as when the MainMan limo snakes past the MovieLand Wax Museum and the Dame cackles: “Look! A wax museum! Fancy building a bleedin’ wax museum in the middle of the desert – you’d think it’d melt! A-haha!”

Elsewhere, The Dame cracks wise with refreshing self-awareness, punctuating a ruminative, self-indulgent discussion on his stage personae with “I’m glad I’m me now… ‘I’m glad I’m me now’! My God, I can trot ‘em out!”

Cracked Actor is also notable for offering those savvy enough to pick up the signals, evidence of the Dame’s cocaine addiction, which had hitherto been concealed from the fans at large. There’s a scene that could not be bettered if it were scripted, when Bowie’s limo is cruising through the vulpine crepuscular haunts of downtown LA and a distant police car siren howls and the Dame mumbles, “I hope we’re not stopped… Is there anything behind us?” – offscreen there’s the sound of crinkling foil and DB gives an involuntary snow white and neon sniffle. The more innocent of Bowiephiles at the time simply found it alarming that their leper messiah looked so pale and gaunt, which was also a worry. Little wonder, then, that his new rhythm guitarist Carlos Alomar soon said to him, “Man, you look terrible. You look like shit, you need to eat some fucking food.”

Either way, the thin white powder was taking its toll on this creative performer, in conjunction with his multiple personality play-acting. as he told Tony Parsons in 1993: “It was a dangerous game because I was putting myself in an area where insanity is seen as just some kind of personality trait – a characteristic of a person that was to be applauded, almost.”

At the time, however, Bowie’s estranged homeland fans drank this film in all its weirdness and awkwardness, as it captured the decade’s biggest solo star in his first really transitional phase from a position of celebrity.

“The programme was a big deal for me as I was at the height of my Bowie obsession, and up until then there had been very little TV coverage of him in Britain”, artist Mark Wardel told Susan Compo: “All week before the broadcast I had obsessed about the programme and read and re-read the double page Radio Times feature on it by Anthony Haden-Guest… One of the most affecting hour’s viewing of my life.”

Cracked Actor would also make an impression on an even more influential audience, that of film auteur Nic Roeg, whose agent Maggie Abbott had procured a recording of the documentary for him to see as he was casting for his The Man Who Fell To Earth: “Watching that film, he was my film’s character, Mr Newton. My reaction was, That’s him all right, all wrapped up and done.”

The film’s effect would also be noted by Bowie himself, when BBC2 repeated Cracked Actor in January 1993, just as the cleaned-up and freshly re-married artist was preparing to release his first solo album in six years, Black Tie White Noise: “Participating in Alan Yentob’s BBC documentary Cracked Actor had held up a mirror to Bowie, and it took time for him to come to terms with the reality he saw there”, wrote Lorne Murdoch in 1993.

❉ ‘Cracked Actor: A Film About David Bowie)’ was first shown on BBC1 on 26 January 1975.

❉  James Gent has previously contributed to volumes such such as 1001 TV Shows You Must Watch Before You Die (Continuum), Blakes Heaven: Maximum Fan Power (Watching Books) and You and 42: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Douglas Adams (Who Dares Publishing). He is the co-editor of Me and the Starman (now available by Cult Ink on Amazon

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