When I purchased my first DVD player, I selected from the, at the time, very small selection of videos available. One of the first DVDs to catch my eye was David Bowie’s 1984 concert film, Serious Moonlight, captured during his 1983 tour stop in Vancouver, Canada. At the time, it wasn’t one of my favorite Bowie eras, preferring the Hunky Dory era chameleon and the more recent electro-influenced Earthling. In fact, since this film has been available, I’ve heard and read mostly disparaging comments about the cheesy ’80s production values and the silly staging, but I found the concert to be the ultimate mix of Bowie’s early years, making it somewhat of a live `greatest hits’ compilation. Many prefer the D.A. Pennebaker concert film, Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture, but I find that Serious Moonlight gets a little closer to the performer.
The Serious Moonlight tour took place after Let’s Dance was released (taken from a lyric in that title song), the album that many consider to be Bowie’s last good one before a string of sub-par releases. As such, it is perfect timing for a snapshot of his illustrious history. This tour is now infamous for being the one in which Bowie tried to recruit Stevie Ray Vaughan, who backed out after being asked to wear a sailor suit. Bassist Carmine Rojas can be seen wearing the outfit in the video. The dual lead guitar switch off of Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar proves to be a worthy replacement for Vaughan, and both ended up to be longtime collaborators with Bowie. He ironically begins the concert with “Look Back in Anger,” a song which depicts the coming of death for someone who has been waiting for it. Even now the song would be ironic considering that the Duke is practically ageless, his voice as strong as ever, and still an icon of youth and utter cool. Bowie then proceeds to power through “Heroes,” “What in the World,” “Golden Years,” and “Fashion” before getting on to what was the hit single of the time, “Let’s Dance,” which carries the name of the tour.
Bowie looks ever the dandy at this Canadian show, stick skinny, his light blue suit fitting him as it would fit a mannequin, his bleach blonde pompadour reflecting the spotlights in such a way as to make him even more the focal point of the stage. His appearance, stage show, and music have always had a flair for the dramatic and nowhere does he combine all three as elegantly as he does in his performance of “Life on Mars.” Eschewing showing most of the cartoonishly dressed band, as they are hidden in shadows, director David Mallett focuses his camera solely on Bowie telling his story in song. “China Girl” shows the `theater-style’ staging best as you find the horn players sitting on crates playing poker in the background. More hits follow after he oddly chooses to play “Sorrow,” the cover of the Merseybeats song he did for Pin Ups. One of the things that tends to help the newcomer to Bowie’s work is the addition of segue photographs that feature the title and original year of the song to be performed. It’s kind of a video primer to the first half of Bowie’s career.
What makes this DVD different than the previously released version is the inclusion of a documentary called Ricochet. The short film was recorded during the tour stops in Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore and feature a somewhat staged story of a young Asian boy who is trying to find money wherever he can get it to afford a Bowie ticket. Bowie shows his fun loving human side as he tries to remember an old Chinese song called “Mei Kuei” as sung by Hue Lee. He finally hears it sung to him by two women as they give him a tour of their country and he is utterly giddy. Bowie fans always knew that he had a sense of humor, but this documentary, stagey though it is, shows the man beneath the fashion and glamour. Various concert performances from the Asian tour highlight the documentary to great effect.
Little other than Bowie fans will be interested in this DVD, but that’s enough to make it a big seller. The show might not be as intimate as the one in which I saw the man perform at Philadelphia’s Electric Factory, where he played for over three hours, but Serious Moonlight was not about intimacy. It was about ’80s excess, and the stage production, the size of the arena, and particularly Bowie’s hairdo scream excess. Underneath all of the sheen, however, is a master performer at the top of his game. The video is worth it simply for his performance of “Cracked Actor” featuring the iconic image of Bowie holding a skull, Hamlet style, and singing to it. Brilliant.
David Bowie- Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture
Morrissey- Who Put the `M’ in Manchester?
Various Artists- Live Aid