The chameleon-like David Bowie constantly battled against modern convention and predictability. The rock legend seemed to transform into a new character every few years, from his clean-cut mod phase of the 1960s to his outlandish platform boots and neon orange mullet of the early 1970s. But who was the real David Bowie? Director Francis Whately skirts the question entirely in his latest documentary, “David Bowie: The Last Five Years.”
Unlike traditional rock documentaries that dive deeply into the personal lives of music’s greatest icons, “David Bowie: The Last Five Years” still shrouds the musician in mystery and intrigue. In short, if you didn’t know much about David Bowie before watching this documentary, you won’t walk away from the film an expert. Whately only hints at Bowie’s thoughts and feelings as he neared the end of his life. And he leaves the audience with a sense that Bowie will forever be an unknowable, enigmatic figure.
But that doesn’t mean you should skip “David Bowie: The Last Five Years.” Quite the contrary, this documentary shows us a rare glimpse of Bowie’s composition process, offering us a behind-the-scenes look at how he crafted his final works and coped with his impending death through art.
The documentary follows Bowie as he writes and records his last two albums, “The Next Day” and “Blackstar.” It also illuminates the inspiration behind his first and only off-Broadway musical, “Lazarus.”
The musician began each of the three projects following a bout of illnesses that started in the mid-2000s. While on tour in 2004, Bowie suffered a mild heart attack. As a result, he stopped performing live in the final years of his life. Nearly 10 years later, Bowie was diagnosed with liver cancer. Just 18 months after his diagnosis, he succumbed to the disease.
Rather than interviewing Bowie’s loved ones about the emotional impact that his heart attack and later cancer diagnosis had on the people closest to him, Whately instead speaks more to the musician’s secretive creative process at that time. Bowie did not want the public to know about his illness and kept it a secret from all but his closest friends and family. The musician did, however, want to create music that would reflect how he was feeling as he approached the end of his life. It’s clear that both “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” are heavily influenced by his musings on life, death and grief. Both works are a somber retrospective of Bowie’s expansive career, and they each hint at the emotional turmoil that Bowie must have experienced at the time of the recordings.
“David Bowie: The Last Five Years” succeeds in capturing the hush-hush atmosphere in the recording studio. We learn Bowie asked the musicians who worked on his last two albums to sign non-disclosure agreements and to keep every aspect of the recording process a secret. Apparently, Bowie wanted to make sure that every piece was perfect from start to finish, perhaps with the knowledge that these would be his swan songs. And he chose to keep his creative process secret until the albums were released.
The documentary paints a picture of a rock star who kept a constant guard over his day-to-day life, yet who managed to express himself fully and beautifully in his music. We finally see the profound effort and thought that Bowie put into everything he wore, every word he spoke and every song he crafted. Although the inner workings of his life still remain a mystery, “David Bowie: The Last Five Years” leaves us feeling comfortable with that uncertainty. It reminds us that Bowie was a tragedian at heart, and that sometimes, the mystery is more satisfying than the reality.