‘He was so strung out on cocaine he’d only let us interview him in the back of a limo in the dead of night’: As the ‘greatest rockumentary’ inspires a new book about him 50 years later, the man behind it recalls the ‘ethereal beauty’ of David Bowie
David Bowie sat in the back of the black Cadillac as it was driven through the empty streets of LA at 4am. The sound of a lone police siren in the distance made him visibly stiffen. Glancing furtively towards the camera he sniffed several times and asked: ‘Is there anyone behind us? I hope we’re not stopped.’
The scene, filmed at the height of his fame – and a cocaine addiction that Bowie admitted nearly killed him – is one of many extraordinary and revealing moments in Cracked Actor, a groundbreaking 1974 film originally made for the acclaimed BBC arts programme Omnibus.
The 53-minute film, which music ‘bible’ Rolling Stone magazine now calls the ‘greatest rockumentary ever’, captured Bowie as he toured America for his Diamond Dogs tour.
Bowie would leave the film crew waiting for days as he binged on cocaine. His drug-induced paranoia meant he would only agree to be interviewed in the middle of the night, often in the back of a limo, as he was being driven from city to city, because the idea of flying terrified him.
Today, Cracked Actor is considered by many to be a masterpiece because it was the first fly-on-the-wall study of a star at the height of his creative powers, yet in the depths of personal misery and addiction.
Such is its staying power that a new book about the making of the film will be published this month and the original Omnibus tapes are being remastered for a theatrical release in cinemas next year to mark the 50th anniversary of the filming.
Boy George has described Cracked Actor as ‘life-changing’ while supermodel Kate Moss can recite entire lines of dialogue by heart.
The man in the limo with Bowie that night was an unknown 27-year-old film-maker called Alan Yentob.
Yentob would go on to hold some of the most powerful jobs in television, including Controller of BBC1.
But back then, his only claim to fame was a short film about David Prowse, a 6ft 6ins actor known as the Green Cross Code Man who taught children about road safety. Prowse would later find fame as Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy.
Yentob, now 76, was not a Bowie enthusiast but the chance to shadow the singer on his Diamond Dogs tour of America was too good to turn down. ‘I wasn’t a fan, in truth I didn’t know his music, but Bowie had just killed off Ziggy Stardust, his most famous creation, and was in the process of reinventing himself,’ he said.
‘He was incredibly vulnerable, both emotionally and physically.
‘His drug addiction was never explicitly addressed in the film but it was plainly there to see. He lived on a diet of cocaine and milk.’
At 27, Bowie’s 5ft 10ins body was so emaciated and his drug addiction so severe, he was in grave danger of joining music’s grimly named ’27 Club’ – comprising artists such as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix who all died before their 28th birthdays.
Yet despite his drug-addled state, Bowie agreed to be ‘brutally honest’ in front of the cameras. Yentob said: ‘Until then, artists hit on a successful formula in terms of their image and stuck with it.
‘The film captured people’s imaginations because it was one of the first fly-on-the-wall documentaries. Bowie let the camera in, not just into his creative process but also into his life.
‘I didn’t have to spell out that he was using drugs, it was obvious.
‘The film wasn’t glorifying drugs, far from it. You could see he was a genius, a good man, who was being ravaged by addiction.’
One of the most enduring images from Cracked Actor shows Bowie lying still for hours as his face is encased in plaster of paris to make a life mask which many have interpreted as Bowie ’emerging’ from the character of Ziggy Stardust and showing his ‘true’ face for the first time.
At one point Bowie calls for tissues to remove the gunk from his eyes.
Yentob said: ‘He was fragile and exhausted but prepared to open up and talk in a way he’d never done before. It was extraordinary he allowed himself to be filmed like that. He was in this transformative moment.
‘Originally we were going to call it The Collector because Bowie had talked about collecting characters.
‘It ended up being Cracked Actor because he was getting rid of his old characters and starting a new life.’ Cracked Actor was the title of a song from Bowie’s 1973 album Aladdin Sane.
One mesmerising sequence in the film shows Bowie serenading a skull onstage as he sings the song which describes an ageing Hollywood star’s encounter with a prostitute. He is filmed passionately kissing the skull, which caused shockwaves at the time but which, Yentob now believes, was part of Bowie’s ‘experimentation’.
Yentob said: ‘He was reinventing himself but had no idea where he was going or what he was looking for. He was lost.
‘Because of his issues [with drugs] there was a lot of hanging around, sometimes for days. You had to be ready to go to his room at 2am to do an interview. Or jump in a limo with him in the middle of the night.’
Bowie would later admit: ‘I was so blocked, so stoned. I’m amazed I came out of that period.
‘When I see that now I cannot believe I survived it. I was so close to throwing myself away physically, completely.’
In perhaps the most famous scene in the film, Bowie sat in the back of yet another limo, holding a carton of milk, and reflected about being influenced by his time in America.
Bowie said: ‘There’s a fly floating around in my milk.
‘It’s a foreign body in it, you see, and he’s getting a lot of milk. That’s kind of how I feel. I couldn’t help but soak it up.’ Another memorable line is when a fan gushes: ‘I’m just the space cadet. He’s the commander.’
Yentob said: ‘I was at a party and Kate Moss came up to me. I had no idea she even knew who I was but she found out I’d made Cracked Actor and told me, ‘That’s my favourite film ever’.
‘She spent the rest of the evening reciting lines she’d learned by heart. She’s seen the film dozens of times.’
The svelte model recounted how she picked up a Brit Award on behalf of Bowie and had planned to wear one of his outfits from around the time Cracked Actor was filmed – but it did not fit her because it was too small.
Moss quoted another line – when Bowie spotted a wax museum in the desert and said: ‘A bleedin’ wax museum in the middle of the desert? You’d think it would melt, wouldn’t you?’
Yentob said: ‘When I go to Glastonbury or anywhere with young people, I get approached by kids who quote the film back to me.
‘That’s the amazing thing about Bowie. He has a connection with young people in every era, including this one.’
Bowie talked about his troubled childhood – and how three of his mother’s sisters were judged mentally ill.
‘Oh yes, my family is quite mad,’ he said. ‘My parents were cold emotionally. I always craved affection and attention because of that.’
Yentob said: ‘Bowie had a difficult childhood and he needed to escape and become someone else which is why he created all these incredible characters.
‘The film shows him shedding some of those characters and reinventing himself.
‘He trusted me. He was fragile and he was lonely.
‘There’s a phrase about drowning, not waving – he was drowning.’ Artist Mark Wardel co-authored the new book, The Fly in the Milk: David Bowie Cracked Actor, with fellow Bowie scholar Susan Compo.
He said: ‘I was 17 when I first watched Cracked Actor and I became obsessed.
‘Bowie’s message to kids was that you can be anything you want to be. He was constantly evolving. He inspired me to become an artist.
‘His message is as true today as it was then.
‘Even though he was painfully thin he had this ethereal beauty.’
Wardel’s original artwork, which is worth tens of thousands of pounds and has been bought by collectors including Mick Jagger and Boy George, features heavily in the new book along with never-before-seen pictures from the 1974 tour.
He treasures a letter he received from Bowie in 1979 after he sent the singer a piece of art: ‘I had it framed and sleep under it every night. I couldn’t believe a star of his stature would take the time to write back to a regular fan.’
But the original face mask from the film is believed lost.
Yentob said: ‘I don’t know what happened to it. It walked off the set. It would be worth a fortune today.’
Yentob sent Bowie a copy of the film before it aired on Omnibus.
Bowie watched it, shell-shocked, in a darkened room. His initial reaction was: ‘It’s interesting.’ He later said he loved the movie because it captured a moment in time he ‘barely remembered’.
Bowie would reinvent himself again and again – as Major Tom, as a soul singer, as The Thin White Duke and, later, as a global pop artist who enjoyed hits such as Under Pressure, Let’s Dance and Dancing In The Street.
Yentob maintained a lifelong friendship with him which became closer once Bowie met his supermodel wife Iman in 1990.
‘Iman changed David’s life immeasurably,’ said Yentob. ‘He was truly happy for the first time. She brought love and stability to him.’
Yentob holidayed with the couple at their home on the Caribbean island of Mustique, where Mick Jagger was a neighbour.
‘I went from Bowie’s house to Jagger’s and realise now, looking back, how incredibly privileged and amazing that was,’ Yentob added.
Bowie died of liver cancer in 2016. Yentob said: ‘I feel so fortunate to have captured him, at that moment, on film.
‘Bowie is immortal, a towering figure in the arts, but when we made Cracked Actor neither of us realised it would change our lives for ever.
‘The film captured the life of an artist at a moment of change and reinvention and one that, right at that moment, might not have been that healthy or happy for him. But he got through it – and it changed both our lives.
‘It amazes me that we are still talking about it nearly half a century later.’
The Fly in the Milk: David Bowie Cracked Actor, by Mark Wardel and Susan Compo, can be ordered from Red Planet books.