David Bowie is The Elephant Man – Ad / Trailer. A Nacho production.
From July 1980 to January 1981, David Bowie played the part of the real-life eighteenth century character John Merick – the Elephant Man. 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.
Bowie’s schedule was:
– Mid-July – two weeks of rehearsal in San Francisco
– July 29 to August 3, 1980 – Denver’s Centre of the Performing Arts
– August 5 to 31, 1980 – Chicago’s Blackstone Theatre
– September 1 – Rehearsals began for the Broadway run of The Elephant Man with a new cast
– September 23, 1980 to January 3, 1981 – New York’s Booth Theater
It was Bowie’s first and only theater 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 birth deformities of the unfortunate John Merick.
It was an extraordinary decision for Bowie at this stage in his career. Performances were six nights a week, and three additional matinees per week. It seems incredible now that he undertook such a routine for over five months. It would have effectively blocked him from traveling, and performing, promoting his new album or recording music. Working on The Elephant Man – for the crucial 5 months between August ’80 to January ’81, meant that a tour or even planning and rehearsing for one, would have been impossible. By the time his stint in the play had ended, the ideal time to promote the Scary Monsters material had past.
At that time, as a young Bowie fan, I was very intrigued by him being in the play. Tho’ being 15 years old and in the UK, there was no chance for me to go to the States see it. I remember Bowie was pictured on the front cover of the NME in September 1980, looking extraordinarily beatific, semi-naked wearing only a loincloth. It was a typically gorgeous monochrome shot by the then NME house photographer, now film director, Anton Corbijn. No less intriguing was the huge feature and interview by Angus MacKinnon:
“The audience is soon made aware of Merrick’s disabilities by the device of having (Doctor) Treves show a series of slides taken of the Elephant Man when he was first admitted to the London (Hospital).
At this point in the play a curtain is pulled back to reveal a spotlit Bowie wearing nothing but a loincloth and standing with his legs apart and arms outstretched. As Treves dispassionately enumerates Merrick’s afflictions, so Bowie amplifies the gist of the surgeon’s lecture by gradually straining himself into the crumpled stance he will, one short scene excepted, adopt for the remainder of the play. This brief sequence of mime is astonishing enough, but there’s better to come.”
The excellent David Bowie Golden Years web site, has a nice page about The Elephant Man: http://www.bowiegoldenyears.com/elephantman.html
Unfortunately, no performance was filmed in it’s entirely. Only two complete scenes exist, totaling ten minutes, and several interviews and features on the play were made at the time, most of which are on line in reasonable quality.
The idea for this video started out of desperation to see / create something for the Scary Monsters period, and I had toyed with using some of The Elephant Man footage to make a video for the track Scary Monsters. Those experiments proved to be fruitless, but when telling my Bowie mainman SK about them he suggested making a “fake” TV Ad based on the real radio Ad from the era. I added the idea to the ever-burgeoning list of potential Bowie videos. Then when the time came to work in earnest on The Tonight Show material, I decided okay let’s pair it with The Elephant Man Ad.
I found a lot of material on The Elephant Man, and completed several fairly satisfactory versions of the fake Ad. The limitations of producing a TV Ad meant that it could not contain any long scenes, or in it’s entirety be longer than a minute. That was a good discipline, but placed restrictions on what was possible.
Then the idea came that maybe there should be a documentary made about the play. And so the “fake” Ad has kinda morphed into a hybrid of Ad and Trailer for an imaginary (tho I may end up making it) forthcoming documentary called:
“David Bowie is The Elephant Man”.
Hope you dig it!
If anyone has any other footage, or ideas for another video project, of material from Bowie’s classic period, do please get in touch: email@example.com
Putting this video together was another huge labour of love, made with love and with respect for the source.
I don’t own the rights, and I’m not making any money out of this etc. Just a fan making videos for other fans.
Nacho, January 1st 2017.