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David Bowie in New York 1980 : The Elephant Man, Scary Monsters & Other Strange People (A Nacho Film 2020)

December 4th, 2020 | by Nick

David Bowie in New York 1980 : The Elephant Man, Scary Monsters & Other Strange People

This is an approximately 40-minute documentary presenting an overview of the six months that David Bowie was in the U.S., starring in the Elephant Man play.

The film’s primary focus is on Bowie’s New York experience during that pivotal period. It also outlines the play itself and something of the real-life Elephant Man. All known scenes of Bowie as The Elephant Man character are included, along with music, interview and other pertinent archive material.

From July 1980 to January 1981, David Bowie played the part of the real-life eighteenth century character Joseph “John” Merick. He portrayed Merrick in Barnard Pomerance’s 1977 play The Elephant Man, which was produced by Richmond Crinkley and Nelle Nugent, and directed by Jack Hofsiss.

It was Bowie’s first and only theatre role, and it was a critical and commercial success. He was widely praised for his part in the play, contorting his body and voice to convey the hideous deformities and the humanity of the unfortunate Merick.

Bowie’s 1980 / 81 Elephant Man schedule was:
• Mid-July – two weeks of rehearsal in San Francisco
• July 29 to August 3 – performances at Denver’s Centre of the Performing Arts
• August 5 to 31 – performances at Chicago’s Blackstone Theatre
• September 1 – Rehearsals began for the Broadway run of The Elephant Man, with the New York cast.
• September 23 to January 3, 1981 – performances at New York’s Booth Theatre

To commit so much time to The Elephant Man was an extraordinary decision for Bowie at that stage in his career. Performances were five or six nights a week, and two or three additional matinees per week. It seems incredible now that for “a person as grasshoppery as me”, as Bowie put it in an interview at the time, he undertook such a routine for almost six months. It effectively blocked him from traveling and music performance, and large scale promotion of his new album. Touring or even comprehensively planning and rehearsing for one would have been impossible.

Roger Griffin’s excellent David Bowie Golden Years book and web site, were an invaluable source for this film:

Whilst I was in the early stages of working on the film, Chris O’Leary published a new article on his Bowie blog Pushing Ahead of the Dames, entitled “Scary Monsters at 40”. It influenced some of the narrative arc of this film:
Scary Monsters at 40

The idea for this film originated in 2016 out of desperation to see / create something for the Scary Monsters period. I had toyed with using Elephant Man footage to make a video for the track Scary Monsters. Those experiments proved to be fruitless. But when telling a Bowie collector mate about them, he suggested making a “fake” TV ad, based on the real 1980 radio ad for David Bowie in the The Elephant Man play.

Whilst working on that, the idea came for a documentary about Bowie in the play. And then the “fake” ad morphed into a hybrid of ad and trailer for an imaginary forthcoming documentary then called: “David Bowie is The Elephant Man”. Well, four years later, here is that documentary.

Thanks for watching, hope you dig it!


Music by David Bowie:

It’s No Game [No. 1] • Scary Monsters • 1980
Ashes to Ashes • “rehearsal” • 1980
Life on Mars • Tonight Show • 1980
Ashes to Ashes • Scary Monsters • 1980
Up the Hill Backwards [Early Version] • Unofficial • 1980
Fashion • Scary Monsters • 1980
Station to Station • Stage • 1978
Tired of My Life • Unofficial • 1970
It’s No Game [No. 2] • Scary Monsters • 1980

Selected Video Sources:

Friday Night, Saturday Morning • BBC • UK • 1980
Countdown • ABC • Australia • 1980
Musik Szene • WDR • Germany • 1980
The Elephant Man • TV Movie • ABC • US • 1980
CBS New Chicago • Bob Sirott report • US • 1980
The Hunger • Tony Scott • 1982
NYC 35mm Footage • The Kino Library • 1980
20/20 Show • ABC • US • 1980
Good Morning America • ABC • US • 1980
The True Story of the Elephant Man • BBC • UK • 1997
The Tonight Show • NBC • US • 1980
TF1 13 Heures • INA • France • 1980
Five Years • Frances Whateley • BBC • 2013
CBS News Channel 2 • US • 1980
Omnibus • ABC • US • 1980
Psychedelic Furs • “Live at Hurrah” • Nacho • 2020
Young Oh! Oh! • Japan • 1980
Aplauso • RTVE • Spain • 1980
Mixer • RAI • Italy • 1980
Christiane F • Uli Edel • 1981

Selected Audio Sources:

The Elephant Man • Performance at the Blackstone Theatre • 12 August 1980
Interview with Andy Peebles • BBC • UK • 1980

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