Directed by British native Rubika
Shah, the new documentary “Let’s Dance: Bowie Down Under” is
the first to explore the untold story behind pop icon David Bowie’s seminal music video “Let’s Dance.” Journalists-turned-filmmakers Ed Gibbs and Shah, who both have writing credits on the project, endeavored to bring audience this story thanks to a challenging three-year search. They said that their starting point was to “uncover the untold story behind Bowie’s landmark video for ‘Let’s Dance’ to coincide with the record’s 30th anniversary in 2013.”
The film features never-before-seen archival material featuring the music legend himself, in addition to exclusive, all-new interviews with key music collaborators
and noted cultural commentators. Among these figures, Shah
introduces the recognizable faces of Bowie’s groundbreaking 1983 video, Joelene King and Geeling Ng, as well as award-winning
filmmakers David Mallet and Julien Temple, former MTV host and
Rolling Stone editor Kurt Loder,
acclaimed DJ and music historian Norman
Jay MBE and renowned Aboriginal academic Marcia Langton. Together, they offer their personal take on what Bowie
meant to their building sense of rebellion.
“Let’s Dance: Bowie Down Under” premiered at the 65th Berlinale and went on to
play at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. The film recently screened at the BFI London Film Festival.
Shah recently sat down with Indiewire to talk about the genesis of the film, how she snagged such a stellar lineup of talking heads and what’s next for the musically-minded director.
What is your background and personal connection to this story?
As a British filmmaker of mixed heritage, I am drawn to stories that explore notions of identity — and how we fit into the world around us. Also, I used to work in the music industry, so this film taps into two areas that I’m very interested in.
I was always intrigued by the music videos that David Bowie shot in Australia — I lived in Sydney for several years — and wondered what had become of the First Nations [Aboriginal] couple in the video for “Let’s Dance.” It is perhaps Bowie’s most well-known record, certainly in the U.S., and still gets significant airplay, even in 2015. Weirdly, we couldn’t find a single trace of the couple, not one single interview, which was puzzling and sad, especially when you think about what would happen if they made the same video today.
What is the best part about directing? What is the worst?
In terms of the process, it’s great seeing the film come to life in the edit. Filmmaking is a truly collaborative process — I love that all these different and often random pieces come together, and you end up with what one hopes is a coherent film. Getting to meet filmmakers like Spike Lee and Julien Temple and discuss their craft with them is a major positive, too.
The worst part is definitely being a woman — and a woman of color — and having to prove yourself twice as hard. Fortunately, there are filmmakers out there like Ava DuVernay, Ondi Timoner, Jeanie Finlay and Sally El Hosaini, who make you realize it can be done.
Was there any current event, specifically, that motivated you to make this documentary?
At the time, when we started on the documentary, it was mid-2012 and I had spent some time working in the Australian outback. My partner and I were interested in marking the 30th anniversary of “Let’s Dance” — and in particular, the music videos from that album, which we felt had been forgotten. Joelene King was an obvious starting point for us, as she had never had the recognition we felt she deserved. We subsequently discovered that she had been something of a role model for young, aspiring First Nations/Aboriginal creatives, wishing to pursue careers in the arts — something that wasn’t at all common or easy to achieve in the early 1980s.
Tell us a little bit about the filming process, how did you find the funding and resources to get it made?
We’ve mostly self-funded over the last three years — it has truly been a labor of love. More recently, we’ve had some screen agency support.
How did you get Kurt Loder, along with the makers of the original “Let’s Dance” music video for your film?
We tracked Kurt Loder down through some former colleagues, which took some doing and time — about six months, all up. With David Mallet, Ed Gibbs, my co-writer and producer, had been in touch with him for a while — he’d reached out to him some time earlier, about another piece. Ross Cameron was a real find — he’d never been interviewed about this period, and had lots of great stories to share.
What do you think the greatest message is for your audience?
The story is still very relevant today, despite it being 30 years old. Bowie saw something years before others followed suit — and we hope its place in popular culture is appreciated. The videos themselves still feel incredibly fresh — they were shot on 35mm, a format usually reserved for features — as does the music. The record was co-produced by Nile Rodgers. It’s pretty remarkable how well they stack up today.
Where do you plan on taking your film next, marketing-wise?
Given the amount of material we have gathered since 2012, we are working on an extended version. This means, we’re going to keep the short under wraps — film festivals only — for now.
Would you consider applying the premise of your film to other artists or songs?
Possibly, it all depends on the story and the material. We are working on another project that also looks at music and race.
How would you describe your time working in the UK Television and Film industry?
The main difference as an emerging director is that the UK and Australia has a level of government funding, which can offer support that isn’t readily available in the U.S. Having said that, it’s still incredibly tough trying to get a film off the ground — and competition is fierce. On the other side, the U.S. has a far bigger talent pool, as well as an incredibly diverse range of charitable foundations, like Sundance and Tribeca, for nurturing and developing talent.
I had my first film job in the U.S. — I worked on music videos in LA, before setting off on assignment in the South Pacific. LA is the filmmaking capital of the world and there’s certainly an energy in the U.S. that’s infectious.
What’s next for you?
We have a number of other projects in development. I am particularly interested in forgotten or unknown stories that have had a profound impact on our lives.
“Let’s Dance: Bowie Down Under” screens tonight at the BFI London Film Festival.