It was filmed in 1974 when Bowie was struggling with cocaine addiction, and the documentary has become notorious for showing his fragile mental state during this period.
The documentary depicts Bowie on tour in Los Angeles, using a mixture of documentary sequences filmed in limousines and hotels, and concert footage. Most of the concert footage was taken from a show at the Los Angeles Universal Amphitheatre on 2 September 1974. There were also excerpts from D. A. Pennebaker's concert film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which had been shot at London's Hammersmith Odeon on 3 July 1973, as well as a few other performances from the tour. Cracked Actor is notable for being a source for footage of Bowie's ambitious Diamond Dogs Tour.
The title of the documentary was originally to be The Collector, after a comment that Bowie had made to interviewer Russell Harty the previous year, whereby he described himself as "a collector of accents". Yentob and his team were given the task of documenting Bowie's famous Diamond Dogs tour, which was already underway when they started filming. Locations for the documentary mainly centred on Hollywood and Los Angeles, but there was also concert footage taken from Philadelphia. A number of performances from the tour were shown, including the songs "Space Oddity", "Cracked Actor", "Sweet Thing/Candidate", "Moonage Daydream", "The Width of a Circle", "Aladdin Sane", "Time", "Diamond Dogs" and "John, I'm Only Dancing (Again)".
The tour and film coincided with a prolific time in Bowie's recording and acting career. During the summer of 1974, Bowie started recording at Sigma Studios Philadelphia for what became the Young Americans LP. He was about to commence work on The Man Who Fell to Earth film – the film's soundtrack was possibly due to be Station to Station but was later shelved. Photos from Bowie in the US in 1974 on tour and recording, of which some sequences can be seen in Cracked Actor, have been used elsewhere, including the cover of David Live and inserts for the Rykodisc and anniversary booklets for the CD pressings of the LPs that include "Young Americans".
In 1987, while working on his album Never Let Me Down, Bowie reflected in an interview about his state of mind during the time the film was made:
I was so blocked ... so stoned ... It's quite a casualty case, isn't it. I'm amazed I came out of that period, honest. When I see that now I cannot believe I survived it. I was so close to really throwing myself away physically, completely.
The documentary remains officially unreleased though there are bootleg video copies circulating as a result of the programme being shown again by the BBC in the early 1990s and more recently in 2007 and 2008.
- "Omnibus: Cracked Actor – BBC One London – 26 January 1975". BBC Genome. BBC. Retrieved 1 May 2017.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 23 July 2008. Retrieved 22 July 2008.
- Isler, Scott (August 1987), "David Bowie Opens Up – A Little", Musician (106): 60–73