In October 2015, David Bowie decided to end his cancer treatments after learning the disease had spread too far to recover from. The very same week, he traveled to a Brooklyn soundstage to shoot a video for his new song “Lazarus,” the name of a biblical figure that Jesus brought back from the dead. Bowie spent the day in a hospital bed as cameras captured him with a bandage around his head. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he howled. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.”
Footage from that day and recollections from those who were there make up one of the pivotal scenes in David Bowie: The Last Five Years, a revelatory new documentary directed by Francis Whately – who chronicled Bowie’s golden Seventies period in his 2013 documentary David Bowie: Five Years. The film, which airs on HBO in January, traces the singer’s final chapter as he emerged from a long hiatus to create two brilliant albums and an off-Broadway musical – while battling an illness that would take his life just two days after 2016’s Blackstar was released. “He wanted to make his final act one to remember,” says Whately. “And one way of coping with the pain of the treatment and knowing what was going to happen was to keep himself occupied.”
The project presented several challenges. While Whately was able to draw from a wealth of Bowie footage for his first documentary, he had very little to work with while exploring Bowie’s final chapter. The singer grew fiercely private during that time, not granting a single interview or performance. “I had sleepless nights thinking, ‘How am I going to fill 90 minutes without any footage?’ ” says Whately. “I was really worried.”
He decided to get creative, reuniting the bands that performed on 2013’s The Next Day and Blackstar, asking them to play and share their memories of the highly secretive sessions. He filmed the Blackstar musicians at 55 Bar, the same downtown New York jazz club where Bowie first saw them perform before inviting them to play on the album. Guitarist Ben Monder says he was unaware Bowie was sick at all as they recorded. “Even being ignorant of all this,” Monder says, “I was struck by how energetic he was and what great spirits he was in.”
Whately also spent time with Tony Visconti, Bowie’s frequent producer from 1969 all the way up to Blackstar, who shares unheard demos from the last sessions. The most chilling moment comes when he plays the isolated vocals from “Lazarus,” which allow you to hear each agonized breath Bowie took between lines.
“He’s in that song . . . in that moment,” says Visconti. “For the four or five minutes he was singing, he would pour his heart out.”
Behind-the-scenes footage from Bowie’s videos was another treasure-trove. Footage is interspersed with analysis from friends; video director Johan Renck discusses the significance of the skeletal astronaut character Bowie commissioned for “Blackstar.” “Is that Major Tom?” wonders Whately. “I have no way of knowing that, but he certainly wanted you to believe that it was. It’s the character that made him successful, so the idea of one of his last videos having Major Tom absolutely made sense.”
Whately frequently uses concepts and references in Bowie’s final songs to flash back to prior moments in his career when they were explored; he traces the theme of celebrity from “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” back to Bowie’s lifelong struggle with fame. “I wanted to look at his final period through the prism of the past,” Whately says. There is also a lengthy prologue centering on Bowie’s 2003-04 Reality tour, which ended prematurely when he suffered a near-fatal heart attack right after stepping offstage at a festival in Germany. Tour footage from that time shows Bowie goofing off with his band and checking out a Montana truck stop, at one point competing with guitarist Earl Slick to win stuffed animals in a claw-machine game. “His sense of humor was on,” Slick recalls. “That’s not the David I had known in early years.” In one hilarious moment, Bowie looks through cassettes on a discount rack and finds the 1989 release by his side project, Tin Machine, and 1979’s Lodger. “These must be albums that nobody ever bought so they got moved here,” he says.
Whately considers the film a tribute to an artist he met a handful of times during his long tenure working at the BBC. It wasn’t until after the release of Five Years that he felt a personal connection to the singer. “Near the end of his life, he wrote to see how I was doing,” says Whately. “He said to me, ‘I’m very happy with my lot in life and the new album. What more can any man ask for?’ It really showed the dignity of the man.”