Screenwriting Career Lessons From… David Bowie?

I was watching ‘David Bowie night’ on factual and arts channel BBC4 last night, which kicked off with a fantastic documentary on how Bowie created his Ziggy Stardust persona. And I realized pretty quickly there were a lot of lessons here for screenwriters, or indeed anyone in a creative career.

It takes time.  Bowie had been in the business for more than a decade when Ziggy made him a superstar. Space Oddity had been a huge hit for him, but a few years later, he was genuinely worried he was going to be a one hit wonder. The old saying  “It takes ten years to become an overnight success” were never truer than in the arts…

Nothing you try is wasted.  During those ten years, Bowie had released hard rock, folk, comedy novelty records, every type of music that existed then and probably some that didn’t. His follow-up to Space Oddity was a long-haired, guitar-led folk album. He even spent time ‘inventing’ a new rock star, a good-looking lad who would mime to Bowie’s vocals. But everything he ever did or saw or liked, right down to his background in mime and experimental dance, eventually fed into Ziggy.

Every great artist steals, urm, I mean ‘homages’.  Bowie was a magpie, stealing looks from pop culture and Japanese theatre, music elements from jazz and 1940’s film scores, and lyric fragments from existing songs. Challenged on this, he said  “Yes, but I know what to steal.”  What he also knew was how to use what he stole as a jumping-off point, something to twist and distort and change into something utterly new. That’s the difference between theft and genius.

Innovate and succeed.  Bowie basically invented the idea of the rock ‘stage show’ – elaborate costumes, theatrical lighting, dance, mime, spectacle. Before him, musicians essentially turned up, played the songs, and left. That made the Ziggy Stardust tour unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. Which could have backfired, and sometimes did – indeed, in the American Mid-West, he was playing huge arenas with a couple of hundred in the audience –  but to the right audience, it was utterly compelling.

Why?  Because of the most important lesson we can learn here –

His art genuinely spoke to a generation. The evening closed with the film version of the final Ziggy Stardust concert. Watching Bowie sing Rock And Roll Suicide  as the closing number – watching him sing “You’re not alone”, to a young, alienated, disenfranchised audience, in an era before feminism or gay rights had fully taken hold – is electrifying.  The song was transfigured by the audience’s response to it (in the same way a cinema audience interacts with a movie), and the audience were changed by the song.

Whatever medium you work in, if you have something empowering, humane, compassionate and life-changing to say, you can’t not succeed.

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