For David Bowie, space remains the place in the haunting, psychedelic short film for the musician’s new song, “★” (previously titled “Blackstar”), the title track from his upcoming LP.
The intricate, expansive song opens with a melange of glitchy synths, jazzy, untethered drums and Bowie singing in an eerily processed voice, “On the day of execution, on the day of execution, lonely women kneel and smile.” The clip follows a woman with a tail who approaches a stranded astronaut and lifts the visor of his helmet to reveal a skull covered in jewels.
This scene is intercut with footage of Bowie in a cell with several others. The rocker plays a blind prophet whose face is covered in a bandage with two black stones replacing his eyes. As “★” transitions into its middle section — rooted in poppier cosmic soul — Bowie’s character loses the blindfold and preaches with a brilliant grin and some charmingly stilted dance moves.
But the man’s fate has already been sealed. In the final movement, Bowie and two other prisoners are strung up like scarecrows, while the astronaut’s skull is used to a conjure a beast that torments the prisoners as they thrash against their crucifixes.
The “★” clip was directed by Johan Renck, who also helmed The Last Panthers, the Sky Atlantic drama series that inspired Bowie to pen the track. At the video’s Brooklyn premiere, the filmmaker told a small audience that he met Bowie when the director was trying to find music for the shoe’s opening title sequence and a mutual friend connected them. When the singer first called the filmmaker, Renck recalls, “I think I started crying.” But from there they bonded quickly, Skyping often and trading inspirations. The song “★” eventually became the theme for the song.
The director first began working on the song’s clip in July, and filmed Bowie in New York and other scenes in Bucharest, Romania. As they worked on the treatment, Recnk found the singer to be “genuine, curious, playful, smart, funny, profound, truthful.” What he was not was intimidating. Even directing Bowie was easy, the director explained. “He’s very curious,” Renck said. “He’s very open. He’d be clear if there’s something he doesn’t like or want to do.”
The director also shared some of the ideas behind the clip. In addition to drawing shared inspiration from art-house movie directors like Alejandro Jodorowsky, Aleksi German and Andrei Tarkovski (“We talked about how Tarkovsky developed very long, uninterrupted shots,” Recnk said), Bowie and the director bonded over an unusual dance inspiration: Popeye cartoons.
“The [inspiration for the actors’] shaking is funny,” the director said. “David sent me a YouTube clip from a very old cartoon, I think it was Popeye. With those early-days animations, they sort of drew frame by frame on top of the film. So what happened is the characters would be like … ” he mimicked a herky-jerky motion. “David said, ‘I’d like something like this.'”
Although Renck was open with sharing some of the clip’s inspiration, he wanted to leave some things up to interpretation. During the audience Q&A section of the event, he paused when a fan asked whether or not the deceased astronaut in the clip could be Bowie’s original beleaguered spaceman Major Tom. “Could it?” Renck said. “I think that’s honestly up to anybody to take from it what you want. I certainly have my idea. I have a very firm idea of what everything’s about. But I’m not prepared to share it, because I don’t want that to corrupt your ideas.”
Bowie will release ★, his 28th studio album, on January 8th, the day of his 69th birthday.