David Bowie: The Last Five Years - a final flourish that was a lifetime in the making
The BBC’s fine portrait of the final years of Bowie’s life revealed the touching mortality of the man as well as canny self-awareness of the rock star
Who do you mourn when you mourn for David Bowie? It’s a question that might have entertained the man, whose views on celebrity mutated through his career, from a fascinated aspiration, to an arch regard, to a jaundiced dismissal. Almost exactly a year ago, Bowie was one of the first beloved public figures to leave the world in 2016, a year that became darkly synonymous with celebrity deaths.
This said less about worrisome mortality rates among the famous than it did about a new public performance of grief, in which emoji-stained anecdotes stress personal connections which, though mostly imagined, were not unreal. Bowie inspired the widely circulated, routinely updated viral image of the Sgt Pepper’s collage, populated with the year’s departed. It was a pithy summation of superstar death and iconography. Fame puts you where things are hollow.
David Bowie: The Last Five Years (Sunday, BBC TWO, 9pm) is determined to provide a tribute of greater depth, with a documentary that focuses on his final three works: the 2013 album The Next Day, the 2016 stage musical Lazarus, and the accompanying album Blackstar, all told “in David Bowie’s own words and the words of his closest collaborators”.
For obvious reasons, Bowie’s participation is less than forthcoming, compiled instead through decades of interviews. But even there, the magnetically showy Bowie seems to hide, if not quite in plain sight, in the spotlight. “I found I didn’t get so shy if I sort of adopted a character,” he says, over strutting footage of Ziggy Stardust. “So it was a convenience, as well as a very bright theatrical idea.”
Following his heart attack in 2004, though, Bowie all but erased himself, and when he finally returned to record a new album in 2011, he made his collaborators sign non-disclosure agreements about the work, much to their surprise.
Director Francis Whately may not want to get in the way here, convening Bowie’s collaborators to recreate their sessions on the records, and, even more affectingly, letting Bowie’s isolated vocal tracks play out raw and unaccompanied. But Whately does shape an argument, guided along by helpful quotations, as though composing a committed grad student essay.
If there’s some overreach in this argument, it’s understandable, partly encouraged by the artist and shared by many critics: namely that the seeds for Bowie’s later work were all there in the beginning, like a grand plan (the documentary is borne back frequently to the 1970s) and that even Bowie’s death was managed like a performance event.
Hence, the magisterial sadness of Where Are We Now? (the lead single from The Next Day) prompts a fluid précis of his time in Berlin, shirking fame and drugs, while moving towards making Heroes. “I’d never expect him to look back,” says producer Tom Visconti, “this was a new thing for him.”
Others see him looking forward, into the hereafter, in Lazarus and Blackstar. The first, a long ambition to stage a Broadway musical in idiosyncratic terms, revisits his character Thomas Newton from The Man Who Fell to Earth, as he prepares to die. The second, an album that in substance, tone and images, is all about departures. Newton, Major Tom, and myriad other characters are being laid to rest.
That may be why one speaker, the Lazarus video director Johan Renck, should seem so oddly surprised by Bowie’s reaction, as the singer admitted he had cancer and not long to live: “I thought for a brief second he looked scared, actually.”
It seems easy for his collaborators to forget that he was human, actually. Bowie’s opening-night remark, following the premiere of Lazarus, that they should get to work on the sequel, suggests, more reassuringly, someone quite mortal. Whately recognises it, book-ending his documentary with two of Bowie’s outlined ambitions. “I would love to feel that what I did actually changed the fabric of music,” he says early in his career.
“I’d love people to believe that I had really great haircuts,” he says later. It’s fair to say he achieved both.