When David Bowie died two days after his 69th birthday, and the release of Blackstar, speculation over the timing of the album ran rampant. There was a rush to decode any messages Bowie might’ve left behind in the lyrics, or music videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus.” Song by song, David Bowie: The Last Five Years offers a close reading of Bowie’s final two albums, this time through the words of his collaborators, the musicians and directors Bowie worked with over the course of a fifty plus year career.
Francis Whately directed and produced this documentary, and though I didn’t make the connection until afterwards, if you caught a documentary shortly after Bowie’s death on PBS, that was Whately’s David Bowie: Five Years, which looked at his career during the 70’s, and early 80’s.
David Bowie: The Last Five Years isn’t exclusively about the last five years as the title indicates, but there’s no mistaking which years are the primary focus. Breaks to the past are clearly defined, in how they relate to what’s being discussed, and there’s always a return to the span of 2011 to 2016. For one example, in 2015, Bowie got to cross ‘Broadway musical’ off his bucket list, when he created Lazarus. Through concert footage from his Diamond Dogs Tour in 1974, you realize how long he’d carried that dream and with what high regard he’d always held theatricality in performance.
Whately keeps Bowie’s personal life private. There are no interviews with Iman or other members of his family. Opening with Bowie’s “A Reality Tour,” which would be his longest, and final tour in 2003, Whately isn’t concerned with digging into the seven years Bowie kept a low profile, but checks back when it’s 2011, and Bowie’s secretly starting to call together some people to work on a new album (“The Next Day”).
Featuring some great candid movies, including Bowie and guitarist, Earl Slick, winning a prize from a claw machine, Whately leaves a few moments unpolished, and it makes the whole feel more genuine. Instead of using a slide show to go through the cover designs and titles considered for “The Next Day,” album cover designer, Jonathan Barnbrook, flips through the cards by hand. When jazz and classical composer, Maria Schneider, chuckles at something she’s said, she asks if she can go back and Whately doesn’t edit it out.
There’s a sadness to watching anything to do with David Bowie, knowing he’s no longer on this planet, but probably the most difficult thing to acknowledge is how early on Bowie knew he was going to die. He never stopped working while he was sick, and most people didn’t know.
Opening and closing with footage of fans at the Bowie mural in Brixton, David Bowie: The Last Five Years doesn’t dwell on his death, but dedicates its time to the artistic achievements he was accomplishing, right through to the end.
Airing on what would’ve been Bowie’s 71st birthday, David Bowie: The Last Five Years provides a way to honor the legend from home for fans in search of a means to pay tribute.
David Bowie: The Last Five Years premieres January 8th, 8 PM EST on HBO.