The Berlin era ... David Bowie in 1976.

The Man Who Fell to Earth: David Bowie in 1976.

So familiar are we with the post-war music pioneers of the 1950s and '60s – be they Elvis, Dylan, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones – that it's easy to forget, or at least overlook, the equally profound impact David Bowie had throughout the 1970s.

Fusing art, mime and cinema into mainstream music in a groundbreaking way like never before, Bowie not only became the voice of a post-1960s generation, he also reinvented himself at an astonishing rate.

For those not familiar with Bowie's work and influence it will prove a revelation. 

It is this unparalleled and breathtaking creative drive that forms the core of Francis Whately's riveting film. Rather than a straightforward narrative documentary, David Bowie: Five Years in the Making of an Icon seeks to distil, in five digestible and entertaining chapters, the reasons why the man remains unique and, to this day, so enamoured by audiences throughout the world.

Pre-empting the New Romantics in New York ... Bowie in 1979.

Pre-empting the New Romantics in New York: Bowie in 1979.

For those not familiar with Bowie's work – and the influence he has had on everyone working in music today – it will prove a revelation.

The film begins with Bowie's sexually ambiguous alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust; a figure that brought Glam Rock screaming – fashionably, in gloriously wild colours – into homes throughout drab, depressed Britain, in 1972.

Barely a year later, Bowie had ditched his orange mullet, make-up and elaborate costumes, skipping to Los Angeles to pursue a white reading of black soul music, culminating with his 1975 classic Young Americans.

Krautrock ... Bowie's <i>Heroes</i> came out the next year.

Krautrock: Bowie's Heroes came out the next year.

A year after that, when success had turned to excess, he decamped to Cold War-era Berlin, for a trilogy of krautrock-inspired records, the most famous being 1977's "Heroes". By 1979, he was off again, pre-empting the New Romantics in New York, before becoming one himself, with 1983's Let's Dance.

Most surprisingly of all, this is the first comprehensive overview of Bowie's creative heyday; a period when few, if any, could keep up, or even predict what he would do next.

Whately, an acclaimed BBC filmmaker, spent six months with a small but dedicated team, trawling through archives around the world, to provide the definitive look at a true icon.

“We were in the incredibly fortunate position of not having management control from Bowie's side, to make this film,” he says. “I had no editorial restraints on me with any of the footage or any of the comments.”

The film, which focuses on Bowie's musical legacy (and was used to help illustrate the current David Bowie Is exhibition at the V&A in London), features archival interviews with the man himself, which forms a commentary throughout, with present-day interviews with Bowie's collaborators and friends.

A treasure trove of never-before-seen and very rare clips also feature. Black-and-white footage of Bowie rehearsing with Luther Vandross for his Young Americans tour in 1975 is a particular highlight, as is a rather spiky encounter in 1977 with a European journalist seeking to compartmentalise Bowie. An earlier press conference in Holland, in 1973, with Bowie in full Ziggy regalia, which opens the film, is also a treat.

“There's a rather nice story about the jacket he's wearing [in that],” Whately says. “It was stolen at that press conference. So if there's anyone out there who knows what happened to it, I'm sure Mr Bowie would be very, very pleased to get his jacket back [laughs].”

Fashion has always been an integral part of Bowie's work: from his Japanese-styled body suits for Ziggy, through the shoulder pads of his so-called plastic soul phase, to the all-black of Berlin, and the peroxide-tinged summer wares of Let's Dance. Throughout the 1970s, there was fearlessness about the man, an unstoppable, unpredictable quality that was both infectious and illuminating.

Whately, a lifelong fan, has already been asked whether he'd consider a follow-up. There are, after all, several more years of Bowie's career that warrant closer examination.

“I'd love to do a follow-up,” Whately says. “Carlos Alomar [Bowie's guitarist] wrote to me last week and said, 'When are we doing the next five years?' The footage is available. [We'll see] whether there's an appetite for it.”

He is adamant that more recent, less celebrated periods of Bowie's career are ripe for re-examination.

“I'm a big fan of the rather uncelebrated Heathen album [from 2002],” he says. “I think it's a fantastic album. I think I Would Be Your Slave is as good a song as Bowie has ever made. I think the Outside album [from 1995] is remarkable, as good as anything he did in the 1970s.

"And a lot of people will have me up against a wall for this, but I think the move into Tin Machine [the band he formed in 1988] after the global success of Glass Spider was a hugely brave move as well. To go from playing stadiums to playing tiny clubs again – and to re-evaluate his whole career and artistic ambitions – is very brave.”

As for the man himself, Bowie apparently approves of the film. “I gather he has [seen the film], I gather that all sides are very, very happy,” Whately says.

Whately – who has visited Australia, travelling to Arnhem Land and Sydney, for the 2005 BBC series How Art Made the World – also recalls the time he actually got to meet his idol, when he first joined the BBC more than a decade ago.

“I was very lucky, my first directing job, I had to make 10 two-minute films (my very first thing at the BBC) on modern British sculpture, and I had no idea how to do it," he says. “So I asked my boss who I should approach, and he said to write to my heroes. Which is what I did.

"And a week later, I got a call from David Bowie. Which was a good start," he added, with a laugh.

“On the few occasions I have met him, he's as charming and intelligent man as I've ever met. This sounds all very gushing, I know. They say never meet your heroes, but I was pretty pleased to meet him.”

David Bowie: Five Years in the Making of an Icon will screen again at 7.30pm on Sunday, 28 July on ABC2. It is also available to view for a limited time online via the ABC's iView service, at abc.net.au