Cal State Fullerton musicologist Katherine Reed discusses her book on David Bowie

The musicologist explores David Bowie’s groundbreaking use of film, video, and other visual arts in her new book.
Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Katherine Reed’s “David Bowie and the Moving Image: A Standing Cinema” looks at how the rock superstar created his own persona in music videos and other projects and how that was used by others during his extensive acting career and in ad campaigns for brands such as Louis Vuitton and Pepsi. Reed, an associate professor and unabashed Bowie fan, talks about her work and Bowie’s legacy on the seven-year anniversary of his death this month.

What draws you to Bowie as an artist meriting serious academic study?

My huge interest in Bowie comes from how well-read his music is. He’s drawing from a lot of different influences. He was a painter as well as a musician, and he had a clear interest in the world of visual arts, in the world of film, of literature, in music of all varieties. Tracing some of those interests has been really, really interesting.

Bowie’s personas like Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke were constantly evolving. Do you have a favorite Bowie period?

I love it all, obviously, but I really love the early to mid-1970s, particularly the album “Diamond Dogs,” which is probably my favorite Bowie album because of the plans he had for it. “Diamond Dogs” grew out of a hope that Bowie had to adapt George Orwell’s “1984” into a stage musical. Orwell’s widow was not a fan, and she denied him the rights for it. But he had written some songs, and he used some of that on “Diamond Dogs.” I love that it’s a concept album, that it tells a story, and it’s taking us into an imaginary world. And I think it’s done beautifully. 

You were able to see the “David Bowie Is” exhibit in New York, which included some materials from the David Bowie Archive such as costumes and handwritten lyric sheets. What was that like?

There’s something about seeing the actual objects themselves and getting a feel for Bowie as a person. I was never lucky enough to see him perform live, so some of these materials helped me get a concrete connection in a way that videos (can’t). The other wonderful thing about that exhibition was the fan element. There was actually a kind of communal experience when I saw it in Brooklyn. One of the last rooms had concert footage playing constantly, and when I got to that final room there was a group of people listening and swaying and sometimes singing. It was the closest we were going to get to a Bowie concert; this was a couple years after he died. It was a wonderful communal experience to see that with other fans. 

Bowie played a range of characters—from a space alien in “The Man Who Fell to Earth” to the goblin king in “Labyrinth” and a tortured Victorian circus performer in “The Elephant Man” on Broadway. Do you think he was a good actor?

I think he was a good actor in the right project. Part of what I would use as ammunition for that is a little-known romantic comedy that he starred in (in 1991) called “The Linguini Incident” with Rosanna Arquette. Actually, Iman, his future wife, is in the film, too. He’s an engaging leading man. It’s easy to fall in love with him on screen as he acts. I think one reason he’s so good at this is because acting a part was so central to his musical career. Being on a stage translated really well to his acting career.