The single most powerful moment in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic came when Captain Steve Zissou took a long, introspective drag from his cigarette atop the Bellafonte as David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” blared in the background. The story’s plot and the film’s lush cinematography played an integral role in establishing that sentiment, but the scene was ultimately completed by the desperation in Bowie’s pleading cry. Bowie’s work had a central role in Anderson’s film, essentially making it what it was.
That some of Bowie’s earliest work can complement a film made in 2004 speaks volumes about his versatility. At almost sixty years old, Bowie is as hip now as he was in the early ‘70s and continues to mould pop culture. Not only did he aid in the Polyphonic Spree’s ascent by taking them on tour, he’s also rumored to have every Load Records release mailed to him as soon as it comes out.
The re-release of David Live could not come at a better time. Originally a vinyl-only release, this double album chronicles Bowie performing at Philadelphia’s Tower Theater on his 1974 tour supporting Diamond Dogs. Backed by a group of skilled and inventive musicians, the album flows naturally from start to finish, including a flawless balance of hits and less popular songs. Mainstream hits like “Rebel Rebel,” “Space Oddity” (in which Bowie sings the whole song through a telephone), and the climactic “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” are freshened by the rawness of their live performance. Songs like “Sweet Thing” and “Big Brother,” which veer away from the group’s signature sound, demand equal attention. Bowie’s performance is impassioned and lively, his voice spanning from low murmurs to fervent screams.
Beneath Bowie’s din is an impressive cast of musicians who ably test the limits of the material. Earl Slick pushes his guitar to depths of emotion rarely achieved, while Herbie Flowers (bass) and Tony Newman (drums) provide a frantically melodic rhythm section. This leaves for the pianos, Moogs and wind instruments to strengthen the melodies by challenging them with tinkering solos and moments of perfected cacophony. Working together with grace and charm, the musicians on David Live respectfully reinterpret Bowie’s songs with superior results.
Be it punk rock, avant-garde or hip-hop, Bowie’s influence stretches across every sect of music. Having always been most comfortable on the fringes of pop culture, he is an iconic figure who will always be a few steps ahead of the rest. David Live is so much more than mere nostalgia for the 1970s; it is an altering look at the timeless work of a genius.