Is he live or is he Memorex?
This time around David Bowie is on tape at the Wax Museum, but "Sound and Vision" (tonight at 8) is more than a collection of concert and theatrical footage, video promos and experiments. It is the most comprehensive Bowie program ever assembled.
It's also a compelling portrait of the artist over a 10-year period. This would be a non-compelling proposition with most rock personalities. Bowie, however, is the original chameleon, the elusive man of a thousand phases, a free spirit who changes personas as often as other people change socks. In perpetual transit, Bowie has seldom been less than fascinating--Pierrot becomes the Philly Funkster, the Drag Queen is the flip side of the Space Oddity, Ziggy Stardust and Alladin Sane stumble forward hand in hand. As a producer of personality, Bowie's catchword has never been 'now,' but 'next'; his characters are always sharply defined and developed.
As style became as creative a tool as the voice, saxophone or band that framed Bowie's vanguard music, video came of age in a creative concordance. Bowie never has been content to be merely the subject of video, and so camera and screen become means for his psychic transformations. Whether it's 1973 shorts such as "Time" or "Sorrow" or last year's "Wild Is the Wind," there is a thread of exploration running though the three hours-plus of video (which also includes a lot of rare concert footage).
Tonight's show also features the American premiere of two of Bowie's longer efforts.
"Crack'd Actor" is a highly acclaimed 1974 BBC documentary that mixes performance and interview. Even more interesting is "Baal," the video version of the 1982 BBC production of Bertolt Brecht's obscure post-World War I shocker about a depraved and decidedly sinister minstrel's descent into evil. Bowie, who started in mime before music, has always acted, both inside and outside his music. In recent years, that's been the focus of his energy (witness his acclaimed six-month stint on Broadway as "The Elephant Man" and the demand for his services in the film world). "Baal" is not completely successful--the motivation and eventual descent are a bit unfocused--but Bowie himself is thoroughly charismatic, his speaking voice rich, and his interpretations of the Brecht/Weill songs taut.
This long portrait-in-tape is the first of its kind in Washington, a far more adventurous undertaking than the standard collecting of old Beatles and Stones clips. Future View (which is providing the largest video projection system yet put together in town), Interzone (which put the show together) and the Wax Museum are heralding the arrival of what many see as a new entertainment variant. With the reclusive Bowie mostly absent from the concert scene, this is the only way to view one of the more important and influential figures in modern music. And since Bowie's posture remains kaleidoscopic and evolutionary, it's a story that leaves room for many postscripts.