'David Bowie: The Last Five Years': Film Review

A rock recluse rages against the dying of the light.

Director Francis Whately’s HBO-bound documentary chronicles the rock legend’s remarkable final burst of creative energy.

When David Bowie died in January 2016, the news sent shock waves around the globe, triggering the kind of mass mourning usually reserved for royalty in bygone ages. Having shunned public appearances for more than a decade, Bowie kept his terminal cancer diagnosis secret from all but a few close insiders. His untimely loss was a tragedy, but on another level, also a brilliantly staged piece of theater. At the time of his death, he had a transatlantic No. 1 album and a hit stage show running in New York, both of them dense with cryptic clues about his impending mortality.

A longtime friend and fan of Bowie, British director Francis Whately’s documentary David Bowie: The Last Five Years diligently chronicles the late rock icon’s autumnal career resurgence using rare archive footage, recycled quotes, music videos and performance clips. But it is mostly woven from first-hand interviews with a wide range of friends and collaborators who worked on Bowie’s final projects. With a tone more celebratory than elegiac, this is a worthy screen memorial that should interest serious Bowiephiles and casual fans alike.

A sister film to Whateley’s 2013 documentary David Bowie: Five Years, which mostly focused on the singer’s 1970s heyday, The Last Five Years first aired on BBC television in the U.K. in January of this year. It makes its US debut at Doc NYC festival in Bowie’s adopted hometown of New York City on Friday ahead of its TV premiere on HBO in January 2018.

For the sake of pedantic accuracy, Whately’s film should probably have been called The Last Thirteen Years. A lengthy prologue revisits Bowie’s live tour of 2003 and 2004, the longest of his career. All the musicians involved remember the singer being unusually buoyant and cheerful during these shows. But the tour was curtailed in June 2004 after he was rushed to hospital in Germany with an acutely blocked artery. This hair-raising health scare marked the start of Bowie’s long withdrawal from public life and apparent retirement from music.

But by 2011, Bowie was stirring from self-imposed hibernation, recording his 2013 comeback album The Next Day under a cloak of intense secrecy. A surprise global chart-topper, the album ushered in the extraordinary final act of his long career, culminating in the launch of his off-Broadway stage musical Lazarus in December 2015. His final album, Blackstar, arrived a month later on Jan. 8, 2016, Bowie’s 69th birthday. He died just two days later.

There is ample overlap between The Last Five Years and Whateley’s previous film Five Years, as the director draws on rare archive footage and voiceover quotes to draw parallels between Bowie’s nostalgia-laced autumnal works and his 1970s superstar heyday. These links sometimes feel tenuous and slightly gratuitous, as if Whately does not quite trust the stand-alone strength of the contemporary material. But the connections are underscored by Bowie’s own words in disembodied voiceover, lifted and sifted from multiple archive interviews that predate his long media silence.

Among the first-hand interviewees are longtime Bowie bandmembers Carlos Alomar, Gail Ann Dorsey, Mike Garson and Earl Slick. The musicians from The Next Day and Blackstar also jam together on several backing tracks, unpicking the songs and Bowie’s collaborative process. From Lazarus, actor Michael C. Hall, director Ivo van Hove, writer Enda Walsh and producer Robert Fox share memories of readying the show as Bowie’s health declined. Remarkably, he only learned his cancer was terminal well into the latter stages of Blackstar and Lazarus, making both accidentally prophetic.

The most reliably insightful presence in Last Five Years is Tony Visconti, Bowie’s regular studio producer for almost half a century, who also became his semi-official mouthpiece during his reclusive later years. Visconti shares memories of Bowie’s juvenile jokes and intense working methods, talking us through several songs from his mixing desk, often stripping them down to their ghostly vocal tracks.

The Last Five Years is clearly the work of a Bowie fan, made with reverence for his art and respect for his privacy. There are no domestic details here about the singer’s home life in New York, no references to his widow or teenage daughter, no juicy flashbacks to his cocaine-crazed pan-sexual heyday. All the same, Whately has made a thorough and richly detailed film, told by those closest to the man himself. Even with a Bowie-sized hole at the heart of the story, an intimate portrait emerges of a rare artist who conducted himself with grace, humility and self-deprecating humor right to the final curtain.

Production company: BBC
Cast: David Bowie, Tony Visconti, Michael C. Hall, Gail Ann Dorsey, Ivo van Hove, Gerry Leonard, Carlos Alomar, Earl Slick, Enda Walsh, Donny McCaslin, Maria Schneider, Robert Fox
Director-producer: Francis Whately
Editor: Ged Murphy

89 minutes