To the Bowie fan any new piece of media by him or about him is always cause to celebrate. Screening as part of this years London Film Festival is a new short documentary about the making of one his most famous music videos – Let’s Dance.
Directed by Rubika Shah and Ed Gibbs, Let’s Dance: Bowie Down Under explores for the first time the remarkable, forgotten story behind the video– and how the birth of MTV, and an unlikely journey deep into the Australian outback, led to its unprecedented success.
The film features never-before-seen archive of the behind the scenes of the video shoots including footage of Bowie himself. The film introduces us to the videos stars Joelene King and Geeling Ng was well as a filmmakers Julien Temple and David Mallet.
Ahead of it’s premiere screening last week I talked about the film with co-director Rubika Shah.
Where led you to take up film-making and to make this particular film?
I started making films about four years ago, I changed my career and went back into film school. I started there and did a couple of shorts. I started doing some news, like video journalism which is quite good because of my background because it meant I could marry the two. We did a piece for an Australian newspaper about Joelene King who is the girl in the video. Obviously that video was huge in 1983 and is still huge now and she’s never been interviewed. So my producer and I we spent about six months, we were living in Australia at the time, to track her down and we interviewed her and did a video which we just thought was interesting to Australia. Bowie’s camp picked up on it and they made a big splash about it on their social medias and we were like “this is a really interesting story”. A) No-one’s told it B) It’s been around for thirty years and we were just like “that’s pretty crazy stuff”.
We were really interested in who these people were and how they ended up in it and how they ended up with David Bowie. So that was our jumping in point. In 2013 we did that then a follow up story for the BBC last year and we have done the short film which is having a huge premiere at the London Film Festival this year. So it’s like, yeah we’ve done something Bowie fan related.
Would there be another period in Bowie’s career that you’d be interested in covering or was it these particular story that intrigued you?
I think for me, I’ve always known Bowie through his work and I’ve always enjoyed his music but I’ve never really fallen deep into his psyche and what he was thinking. Because of this start and analysing that video, tearing it apart as it were, I have looked at his great repertoire of work. As a visual artist he is just phenomenal, the same with his music. There’s just so much to him, so yeah sure I’d love to look more into that visual side of him. At the moment it’s just about Let’s Dance and a little bit about China Girl because that was filmed around the same time.
What was your first memory of ever seeing the video? For me it just seems to have always been around.
I was the same and I thought about it and it must have been on MTV. When I was younger my Dad worked in the Middle East we didn’t have a lot of British channels at the time but I remember having MTV. It was playing music videos all the time, especially back then versus now. The “old MTV” as it were. I figured I must have seen it on MTV cause we didn’t have Top of the Pops or anything at that point. I was in my early teens at that point. He was huge on MTV for a long time even up until the 90s he was on MTV doing stuff.
Do you think it was the advent of MTV that really propelled Bowie to superstardom?
Yeah that was really the tipping point of him coming together as a recording and visual artist. MTV gave a lot of stars and artists to creative in a visual way. He’d already done a lot of work, his repertoire of work in the 70s where his work was always based around studio videos and film already.
In your opinion what do you think was so potent about Let’s Dance to the MTV audience at the time?
I think it was a number of things that came together. It was shot somewhere that in 1983 a lot of people wouldn’t have thought of. If you’d have watched Walkabout you would have seen the Australian outback, if you’d watched David Attenborough programs and what not. But it was this far-away land which if you’ve seen the video as many times as we have, that you don’t actually find out we’re in Sydney until the end, really close to the end with the Sydney Opera House. If you’re not familiar with Australia’s indigenous cultures it could be anywhere. It could be “what is this? South Africa or somewhere else?” So I think it was the storytelling that was really interesting in drawing people in. I think the fact it was shot like a film, shot on 35mm which is a format that’s a bit technical but it was shot like a film, a feature film with feature film cameras and lenses so it’s stood the test of time in that sense.
What was it that personally intrigued you about the story of the actors?
I think it was Joelene’s story and the fact that it hadn’t been told. I thought that she should almost be honoured as a national treasure in a way. If you were to deal deeper into her story you’ll see she went to auditions in a place called Naesdan which is the first indigenous dance school and there were no acting schools for indigenous people.
You’ve got to know a little about Australia’s indigenous culture and what Bowie was trying to say with that video. So it was really her story that we were compelled to want to tell and it’s still now, we’ve got all this stuff that we’ve shot and we’ve uncovered more archive where I’m hoping to do some more with it and even now our main motivation is her. She’s just such a lovely person and you’re thinking that if that video had been made now and she had been in that video would things have turned out differently? I don’t know I can’t say but you do wander?
How did Joelene react when you contacted her to talk about the story?
She was really happy to talk about it. She was a little bit shy at first because nobody had really… I think people had talked to her about it ad hoc. But she was a little bit shy of it at the beginning. Her partner, he was really like “I’ve still got the VHS we talk about it all the time”. So he was really bigging it up a bit more, then once she got into the spirit she was quite happy to talk about it. This played a really important part in her life and indigenous people of a certain age will remember that video now and they will say “yeah it gave us a boost, it made us feel proud and that we could do stuff”.
Do you think there is a longer lasting legacy for indigenous people in Australia, in a creative sense, based on that video?
I think the video has a part to play. It’s one piece in a lot of things. A lot of things were happening in Australia at that point but certainly it was something which lent itself to a certain generation of indigenous Australians. If you were a teenager or at that certain age you know going out to bars and you’re listening to that song and watching it on TV it would gel. People have told us, directors and people who work in the arts.
We were with Professor Marcia Langton, a Professor of Indigenous Studies at Malvern University where she talks about the video and about what the images meant. They all correlate, the Let’s Dance video, with Joelene scrubbing the floor that relates back to something specific in the history of aboriginal Australians. It’s quite shocking and amazing that Bowie picked up on it. He did his research.
Looking at the people you’ve assembled to interview for the film. Was it a big undertaking to approach all these people?
If though you have the internet doesn’t mean a lot of these people are easy to get hold of. A lot of these guys are of a different generation, you know, they’re not on Facebook all the time. Ed (Gibbs co-director) was the one who got the email. I think it was her niece who we managed to get in touch with in the end who is a teenager and was the first way in. Everyone was really supportive of telling this story. I think, also, you know the film Five Years? Five Years doesn’t cover Let’s Dance. I think for certain people, a certain audience that that was a way in for Bowie.
We talked to people in their early 20s and later 20s, that actually Let’s Dance is their way in with Bowie. That was the first song they heard, that their parents played.
Do you know if Bowie himself has seen the film or been made aware of it?
We hope he’s been made aware of it! We’ve been in touch with his management, his managements been really helpful. They’ve given us a lot of support on DavidBowie.com and the Facebook pages, all the social medias so they seem to really like where we’re coming from. So hopefully him and Iman will have heard about it and hopefully watch it.
Let’s Dance: Bowie Down Under had its UK premiere at the 59th BFI London Film Festival on Saturday, October 10th, at the BFI Southbank. It will also screen at Brixton’s Ritzy Cinema on Monday, October 12th. Tickets are available via the festival’s official site: www.bfi.org.uk/lff