“The worst thing would be to…look back and think of all the things that one could have tried and could have done, and think – why didn’t I do that?”
– David Bowie
On the first of David Bowie’s birthdays celebrated without his presence, the BBC released David Bowie: The Last Five Years, a documentary that acknowledges the life and death of an immortal icon in British and global music history. Directed by Francis Whately – whose previous work includes 2013’s similarly titled documentary, David Bowie: Five Years – this new release explores Bowie and the legacy he left behind. Footage from a comprehensive selection of sources is compiled into a beautifully edited collage that turns the singer’s life into a film-based mood board: it is a brilliant celebration of a man whose life can be celebrated with ease.
Admittedly, the first few minutes are the weakest; a heavy focus on Bowie’s “celebrity” takes away from the prominence of his musical legacy. Following on from a brief exploration of his 1975 hit “Fame”, the documentary talks about the star’s repellent attitude towards superficial fame, and yet his lifelong wish to achieve fame in terms of worldly gratitude and appreciation for his artistic output. However, considering that the documentary delves no deeper than what could be extracted from the lyrics of the song, this discourse drags a little too much.
Needless to say, this is one of the film’s few negatives, and the rocky start is quickly redeemed once 2013’s Where Are We Now? becomes the new target for analysis. One particular moment of effective editing stands out here as the song was inspired by Berlin, where Bowie lived from 1976 to 1979. Clips from this time and gigs in the city are paired with an audio of the song which, for just a few seconds, is stripped down to a haunting a cappella version. It forces us to question why Bowie’s creative skill as a music-maker so often overshadows his genuinely stunning voice.
A short clip taken from Bowie’s performance of Five Years on the Dinah Shore Show moved me to tears; his expression is as solemn as the song and it is utterly flawless, vocally. In his face, we can identify the tangible connection between Bowie and his music. He was emotionally involved in every melody, and he resonated with the lyrics both personally and politically. In pianist Mike Garson’s words, aptly played in the middle of this footage, “He let you know something’s not right here. He didn’t come up with the solutions, but at least he could express.”
The musician’s illness, meanwhile, is not mentioned until the documentary begins to discuss the music Bowie was producing after diagnosis: primarily, his musical, Lazarus. But Whately chooses to delay the revelation that Bowie knew it was terminal three months before he died. Instead, Bowie’s attitude towards his own condition is spoken about from a number of perspectives, and these voices are careful to maintain focus on the musical career which continued regardless of his cancer.
There is one disappointing quote that temporarily removed me from the documentary: Lazarus producer Robert Fox says of the musical, “My initial reaction was [that] I’ve got the chance to do a musical with David, which is wonderful, but it sure ain’t gonna buy me a yacht!” For this inappropriate statement to be included in a section that specifically deals with Bowie’s sickness, Fox and the documentary-makers reduce him to nothing but an entity that others wanted to involve themselves in before it disappeared. It was senseless and offensive, and Whately was equally senseless in choosing to use it.
For the most part, however, Last Five Years deals with Bowie’s cancer in a sensitive and emotionally stimulating way. His band speak of it, unscripted, as they reminisce about Blackstar, Bowie’s final and self-compiled album.
Most poignantly, the film observes the link between three of his most famous hits and the way they follow the life of one of Bowie’s onstage alter-egos, Major Tom: born in the 1969 hit “Space Oddity”, he lives through 1980’s “Ashes to Ashes” and, in “Blackstar”, he is finally at rest. As musician Mark Plati puts it, “Major Tom is home, finally.”
It is assumed that during a documentary’s biggest reveal, the director would choose to remove the audio and give the audience no distraction. Whately bravely goes against this – and it works. As an instrumental “Blackstar” plays in the background, we are completely unprepared for Johan Renck, the director of its music video, to reveal the terminal nature of Bowie’s cancer. Renck recalls what the star told him in his final months: “I have to tell you that I’m very ill and I’m probably going to die.” The track used underneath increases the intensity of the atmosphere and proves that, in a documentary about a man who could create such incredible sound, silence is sometimes overrated.
The final few minutes sees a compilation of news reports on the morning of 10th January, 2016. He was the first of many icons taken last year, and it is evident from the way the world reacted that he influenced people in a way very few musicians manage to do. The end is truly incredible: an a cappella “Lazarus” is played after Bowie’s producer, Tony Visconti, points out that his heavy breathing can be heard between the lines – but he insists, almost desperately, that this is not because of his illness. It is simply his incredible passion for the music.
Music was the only thing Bowie really seemed to take seriously. He had a powerfully free outlook on life, before and after his diagnosis, that elevated his appeal as an artist. Whately observes this brilliantly in the closing seconds: in response to being asked what legacy he wants to leave, Bowie responds, “I’d love people to believe that I really had great haircuts.”
David Bowie: The Last Five Years can be accessed on BBC iPlayer. Regardless if you are a Bowie fan or not, a music lover or not, I recommend everyone to not only watch it, but to watch until the very end – the clip which plays alongside the credit roll is perfect.