Cracked Actor is a 1974 BBC television documentary film about David Bowie that first aired in January of 1975. It was kind of a “Holy Grail” for Bowie nuts and over the years I’ve owned a VHS bootleg that was barely watchable, a DVD that was a slight improvement over that, and then I taped it off the air when BBC America aired it about ten years ago. Earlier this year, what with all the Bowie hoopla going on in the UK, the film was re-transferred to HD and trotted out again by the BBC. Now it’s really easy to find. In fact, it’s just a few inches below this very sentence.
Cracked Actor is a fascinatingly odd film. It was directed by a then 27-year-old Alan Yentob, later the Director of Programmes for all of BBC Television, who was promised extraordinary access to the singer by his manager Tony Defries. We meet a sickly, obviously coked-out David Bowie, being shunted between performances, limousines and hotels. He’s pale, stick thin and clearly mentally fragile. The somewhat uncomfortable manner in which he comports himself in film apparently made a big impression on Nicolas Roeg, who promptly cast him as an alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth.
In 1987, Bowie said of watching the film again:
“I was so blocked ... so stoned ... It’s quite a casualty case, isn’t it? I’m amazed I came out of that period, honest. When I see that now I cannot believe I survived it. I was so close to really throwing myself away physically, completely.”
Cracked Actor was mostly shot in Los Angeles and the majority of the concert footage was taken from a show at the Universal Amphitheatre on September 2, 1974. It is one of the sole sources of footage from the Burroughsian dystopia via Busby Berkeley vision of the infamous Diamond Dogs tour. Some of the material comes from D.A. Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars film.
Among the numbers performed in the film are “Space Oddity,” “Cracked Actor,” “Sweet Thing/Candidate,” “Moonage Daydream,” “The Width of a Circle,” “Aladdin Sane,” “Time” and “Diamond Dogs.”