“What a disappointing 21st century this has been so far.” – David Bowie
Don’t be so sad, David Bowie. You gave us two masterpieces in 2013 and 2016. And your catalogue’s still available, so things aren’t that terrible. Your art will endure. Your spirit remains. And there’s something to be said for that, especially in Francis Whately’s David Bowie: The Last Five Years.
Coming to HBO almost exactly two years after his death, David Bowie: The Last Five Years is a curious entry into the many legends of Bowie. It’s neither the agonizing lead-up to a death nor the shallow star-fuck that some might have worried it would be. Instead, this is a monument to creativity. A slick song of Bowie’s might and beauty and sheer willpower that stories Mr. Fame’s final two albums and stage play: The Next Day, Blackstar, and Lazarus, respectively.
HBO has plugged the film for its rare footage of his last days. The doc even opens by boldly claiming to hold the key to “the real David Bowie,” a fool’s errand if ever there were one. (He’s equally Ziggy, Tom, and Aladdin Sane, alongside a gallery of others.) But despite The Last Five Years floundering a little by opening with ‘defining statements’ and other such novelties, it transforms and sturdies itself into a nice bit of remembrance for one last outburst of creativity in the life of a great artist – and The Last Five Years argues that inspiration never truly dies.
Somewhat cannily, the film begins with a carnival of footage, song soundbites, and brightly colored exclamations. You can probably imagine this and it wouldn’t be too far from the finished film – some “Rebel Rebel” and “Blackstar” playing over grainy 8mm snippets of Bowie behind the scenes and onstage, hard cuts to ‘80s videos like “Let’s Dance.” It’s a high for sure, and done in a way that adheres to rock-doc cliches, but that’s okay. Whately plays the hits before getting to the deepest, freshest cut: Bowie 2011-2016.
But Whately first covers Bowie’s A Reality Tour from 2003-2004, because of a few pivotal details surrounding it; this was Bowie’s biggest and last tour, and it provides gobs of footage with unexpected insight. We see an insanely lively Bowie prancing around, as he plays the hits around the world. Bowie tears down a great many houses, with renditions of “All the Young Dudes,” “Heroes,” and the like. He saunters around gas stations in rural America, checking out toys and giggling at tapes of Tin Machine for sale. Bandmates Earl Slick, Gail Ann Dorsey, Gerry Leonard, and Catherine Russell (among others) boast of his relaxed attitude and energy.
Then something happens in Prague in 2004. One night on stage, David became sweaty, weak, and downright visibly ill. Scared the shit out of the band. This would be the last time Bowie would tour, and it acts as a key for the doc. Maybe Bowie finally became aware of his own mortality and limits. Years of solitude and a refusal to interview marked late-era Bowie in the mid-2000s. Thankfully, he wasn’t quite done yet. And this is where The Last Five Years really kicks. How the artist managed to keep his work fluid and inventive is beyond impressive, so Whately does his damnedest to cover great bursts of life with anecdotes, insights, clips, and the like (in 90-odd minutes, no less).
(Read This: Every David Bowie Album From Worst to Best)
In the simplest terms, Whately covers the three projects. Bowie called his Reality Tour mates to come work on a private album in 2011. They even had to sign NDAs, which was unusual. This would become the making of The Next Day, and in morbid essence, the beginning of the end for Bowie. Next we see how Bowie quietly collaborated on Lazarus, a loose jukebox take on The Man Who Fell to Earth for the stage, fulfilling his lifelong dream to make a play. And finally, we see the hushed, fast, and deeply saddening final work Blackstar produced as Bowie’s health deteriorates – but the public didn’t really know about that last little detail, as Bowie was more interested in getting the words and work done.
Whately is most interested in exploring the moods, ideas, and inspiration on which Bowie lived. Whately loosely recreates recording sessions, interviews music video directors, explores the words and themes of many songs, and even gets longtime producer Tony Visconti to deconstruct tracks. The essence of isolation and Major Tom, Bowie’s quiet resentment toward celebrity, his wise-ass approach to design with The Next Day’s piss-take on the Heroes cover. Exhausting vocals. Music video aesthetics. Curiosity in new sounds. Bowie’s joie-de-vivre in the face of curiously fatalistic ideas like fallen angels and waxing nostalgic. And the explosive volume of these snippets are to The Last Five Years’ benefit.
Whately gets an exhaustively tight picture, and the grandeur of ideas on display changes what could have been a saddening farewell to more of a wow-inducing series of clusters and creative bursts. The knowledge that these are Bowie’s last sessions is downplayed against the doc’s and-then-and-then-and-then momentum of great ideas emanating from the Starman. Even the visibly exhausted, 68-year-old Bowie shown recording Blackstar has more power and grace in his raw vocals then a hundred hungry indie acts. (Visconti sharing Bowie’s isolated vocals, gasping for air, is both a tear-jerker and a reminder that powerful art pushes to its last breath.)
Occasionally the film invokes old ideas to reflect on recent ones. Bowie’s Berlin period comes up in the lyrics of “Where Are We Now?” Bowie’s 1967 “Love You Till Tuesday” video is played to comment on Bowie’s modern notions of fame’s fallacies. For a Bowie fetishist, it’ll make great sense, and its attempted scope is impressive. For the lovers of the hits, it’ll open eyes to Bowie’s long-term process and shifting ideas. Best of all, it plays to Bowie’s ingenuity. The Last Five Years giddily suggests that real genius, like Bowie’s, never stops creating, and in a humbling way, the movie is a sweet reminder that Bowie’s never gonna leave us.
It’s with a smile that this documentary suggests Bowie was being ironic when he sang on his last song, “I can’t give everything away.” He already gave so much.