‘David Bowie Is’ the Movie Doesn’t Do ‘David Bowie Is’ the Exhibit Justice

A documentary about a museum exhibit is a hard sell. Why not skip the middle man and see the exhibit for yourself? But when it comes to David Bowie, there are no rules. Fans will not only come out for a documentary cataloguing the Victoria & Albert Museum’s groundbreaking David Bowie Is exhibit, they’ll travel far and wide to see the V&A’s career-spanning deep-dive in person.

This week, David Bowie Is continued its international tour with its first and only American stop, at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Following a screening of the David Bowie Is documentary Tuesday at New York’s Paris Theater, the first audience question asked — nay, demanded — of the film’s director, Hamish Hamilton was, “Why the hell wouldn’t this exhibit come to New York?!” Over the last year and a half, it has hit London, Toronto, Sao Paulo, and Berlin. Following its Chicago run, it’ll head to Paris and The Netherlands through 2016. It’s absolutely worth the travel arrangements. After seeing the documentary — half exhibit tour, half talk-show presentation on Bowie’s influence featuring Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and Japanese fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto — I myself am considering flying out to Chicago to see the exhibition again. According to Hamilton, Bowie himself was quite pleased with the exhibit when he toured it.

From Bowie's career-making 1972 "Top of the Pops" TV performance, via the V&A.
From Bowie’s career-making 1972 “Top of the Pops” TV performance, via the V&A.

The film, which showed in 100 American theaters for just one night (September 23), just doesn’t do the exhibit justice. On the show’s closing night in London, the V&A curators tasked with culling through Bowie’s untouched personal archives, Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, attempted to give us a peek into their thought process. The charming duo highlighted the importance of each section of the exhibition, which spans Bowie’s childhood (yes, there are baby pictures) and every single facet of his career (songwriting process, live performance, film, fashion, music videos, other visual art) in individual sections that somehow also move chronologically through his evolving personas. But Bowie’s world is simply too vast to be contained on film.

What you miss by simply seeing the documentary is the transformative experience of the exhibit’s immersive use of physical space and sound. A room covered floor to ceiling in videos projections, with iconic Bowie costumes peeking through on mannequins positioned behind the screens. A wall of Bowie music videos playing concurrently and a recreated recording booth showing studio clips. Sennheiser’s “3D audio” headphones, which are smart enough to seamlessly guide listeners through the audio clips corresponding to where they’re standing within the exhibit.

From the section of the exhibit on Bowie's early bands, via the V&A.
From the section of the exhibit on Bowie’s early bands, via the V&A.

I passed up my first opportunity to experience David Bowie Is in London at its original home, the V&A. The line was hours long, my travel companion wasn’t interested, and I wasn’t educated on its greatness — it was merely an exhibit we happened upon in our travels. When I got back from the trip, I started seeing press about David Bowie Is and realized my gaffe. So you could imagine how excited I was to find that the exhibit would be in Berlin at the same time I was, back in May. At the Martin Gropius Bau Museum, the ‘Berlin’ section of Bowie’s artistic history was expanded and given proper historical context in terms of the city’s changing landscape at the time of Bowie’s residency in the late 1970s. Seeing his bug-eyed oil painting of his Berlin roommate, Iggy Pop, was cool, but the exhibit goes far beyond artifacts.

Contact sheet for 1977's "Heroes" cover shoot, via the David Bowie Archive.
Contact sheet for 1977’s “Heroes” cover shoot, via the David Bowie Archive.

I’ve seen some press coverage refer to the exhibit as a collection of costumes, lyrics, and childhood trinkets — the standard fare for exhibitions on musicians and the bulk of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This coverage does the exhibit a disservice. David Bowie Is makes the Rock Hall look like a student art show. It was the greatest single experience I’ve ever had in a museum in my entire life, and if you care about David Bowie even one iota, you owe it to yourself to get to Chicago by the end of the year.