Director Francis Whately gives Major Tom a soft and poignant landing after a harried five year mission in the documentary David Bowie: The Last Five Years. Multi-everything artist David Bowie has only the happiest memory of the first character he created, the spaced out astronaut beyond the reach of Ground Control, strung out in heaven’s high. In the artistic burst preceding Bowie’s death, the character followed his composer through all the phases of grief and liftoff.
David Bowie put out three albums and wrote a bona fide rock-based Broadway musical between his tour-ending on-stage heart attack in 2011 and his last album Blackstar, released on his birthday, two days before his death in 2016. None of these projects were envisioned as farewells, though goodbyes abound. On the opening night of Lazarus, Bowie told the director he was planning a sequel. He may have had a part for Major Tom. The musical featured the character Bowie played in the Nicholas Roeg film The Man Who Fell to Earth, the visiting alien Thomas Newton.
Bowie explored alienation for the better part of his career, and in doing so, brought people together in unexpected ways. Ziggy Stardust was applying eye makeup and pretending to go down on Mick Ronson, long before the microagressive age. Bowie merged art forms as easily as genres. A master of stage craft, a minor over a diminished chord and a mime on the side, Bowie slapped European electro music down with a Motown beat. He did it as an outsider, an insider and possibly a centerfielder. Bowie’s music captured the underground and filled stadiums. Sure, you can get Tin Machine cassettes for a buck at basement record stores, but David Bowie is as much an icon as Elvis or Sinatra. We even know who he is by one name. There is no other Bowie. Not even Zowie.
The documentary tells it all through the artists who last worked with Bowie. Plus a few blasts from the past, like Toni Basil, who choreographed the tour that came out of Bowie’s failed attempt to make a rock music extravaganza out of George Orwell’s 1984. Maybe it’s better he didn’t, though. If he did, we wouldn’t have Diamond Dogs. Bowie’s bands play intimately in a cavernous concrete rehearsal space, while his disembodied voice is piped in from past masters. This is done lovingly by Tony Visconti, who buries himself in the luxury of reconstructing the recording sessions. Sometimes, he falters, but the camera cuts away before he gives in to sadness.
There is little sadness, though this reviewer unabashedly wiped tears, in the documentary. Bowie was having the time of his life. He was breaking rules in his own quiet corner of Manhattan and nobody had any idea what he was up to. He’d had enough of “Fame” and wanted to try out a new riff on some old haunts. Bowie put his ghost in the music, and while some of it was spooky, it never got in the way of a good show. The shots of Bowie during his last concert at the Hurricane Festival in Scheessel, Germany, on June 25, 2004 are a little out of breath, but the Reality Tour had only been gaining momentum.
The only warning Bowie gave to his band was that he was feeling tired, Visconti says for the first time breaking the mood of the documentary. Up until then, Bowie was too interested in the process of life. He only wanted to get famous to afford him the freedom to push artistic boundaries, maybe get a good seat at a restaurant or a backstage pass, but beyond that it was a pain in the ass, and the fame generation was distasteful. Lady Gaga invades Bowie’s sleep paralysis in the subversive music videos of the artist’s mind. Is it any wonder I reject you first, Bowie questioned in the song he wrote on a guitar riff John Lennon and Carlos Alomar were jamming on.
Bowie was out to subvert his own history, starting with the album covers. In 2012, Bowie was a man lost in time, walking the dead, wondering “Where are we now?” He selectively recalls his time in Berlin. He remembers his first broken heart, done in by an actress named Hermione who went off and fell in love with her Song of Norway co-star but left him with the inspiration to “Letter to Hermione.”
The documentary says Bowie didn’t consider himself an original thinker, but an artist who synthesized the things around him into new interpretations. In a disappointing 21st Century, Bowie was a society by himself. He was as fragmented as the world at large. He was so shocked by a particular murder he had to get into the mind of the killer for the song “Valentine’s Day,” but insisted the Markus Klinko-directed video have no weapon and no blood. Bowie pulls the rifle out of Charlton Heston’s cold, dead hands by singing “his scrawny hands … in his icy heart.”
The documentary then explores The Next Day, Bowie’s first step back into the recording studio in seven years. The sessions were done without a deadline and under so much secrecy, the musicians had to sign NDAs. Bowie wasn’t even sure about the title of the album, considering “Love Is Lost” and “Hour of Dread.” He announced he had a new album ready on his 66th birthday on January 8, 2013. He gave no interviews as a further present to himself and dropped the album on March 11, 2013.
By 2014, Bowie knew the dangers of fulfilling other people’s expectations. He made the music he wanted and worked on it at his meticulous leisure. Bowie would show up in the studio with pages of lyrics. He’d upload piano demos to Visconti’s studio and the musicians would build soundscapes. Diamond Dogs played out during the season of the bitch, but for the season of crime, Bowie needed to push his sound as far out as possible.
His aural landscapes vary from one album to another, as do the musicians painting it. He brings in atmospheric big band composer Maria Schneider, who had just released the album Some Circles, one day. He fulfills his “dream” of working with saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s New York-based jazz quartet, keyboardist Jason Lindner, electric bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana The Next Day.
David Bowie: The Last Five Years is the bookend to Whately’ 2013 documentary David Bowie: Five Years, which examined 1970 to 1975. He makes good use of economically illuminating vintage footage and interviews. In the new documentary, Whately also talks with Earl Slick, Gail Ann Dorsey, Gerry Leonard, Catherine Russel, Sterling Campbell, Zachary Alford, David Torn, Enda Walsh, Donny McCaslin, and Robert Fox.
Bowie tells the Lazarus director he has cancer only to explain why he didn’t think he’d be at too many rehearsals, but shows up for so many of them the sickness looks beatable. Bowie was also working on the recordings of what would be his Blackstar album. The musical was on his bucket list. Van Hove later recalls being told by Bowie over Skype that the cancer treatments weren’t working and he was “probably going to die.”
Like the albums, the production was kept secret until its first preview in November 2015. Lazarus opened on December 7, 2015. Bowie wasn’t expected to attend, but left praising the genius in the people around him. Actor Michael C. Hall, who plays Tom Newton in the musical, remembers Bowie considering the opening night rather successful.
Major Tom was a talisman throughout Bowie’s career, according to the documentary. The Starman could go places in character he wouldn’t go near as a person. Science fiction aficionado Bowie admits he’d be scared shit to actually go on a space ship. There are days he doesn’t want to go past the garden. Bowie invented glam rock with the first costume band show in 1970. The artist as a young man wasn’t afraid to admit he was coming closer to the end of his life than the beginning. Bowie died on Jan. 10, 2016, two days after his birthday and the release of Blackstar.
“Heroes” is rearranged for simple melancholy on the simple stage of Lazarus, rather than triumphant as it is on the record. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sings in the song of the same name. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen. I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen. Everybody knows me now.” David Bowie: The Last Five Years lets us know a little bit more about the enigmatic genius.
David Bowie: The Last Five Years debuts on what would have been his 71st birthday, Monday, Jan. 8 at 8:00 p.m. ET, on HBO.