“David Bowie: The Last Five Years,” which premieres Nov. 10 at the DOC NYC film festival (it will then be shown on HBO), is a singular and haunting pop documentary. It’s a companion piece to “David Bowie: Five Years,” the 2013 documentary in which director Francis Whately meditated on the pivotal period of Bowie’s fame, from 1970 to 1975. That movie dug deep into the heady fascination of the first rock star who was passionate and Warholian at the same time — an image junkie who kept rotating his look and aspect, and did it as casually as most of us change underwear.
“The Last Five Years,” also directed by Whately, was assembled under the shadow of Bowie’s death (he died on Jan. 10, 2016). It’s about a very different man: one who remained, to the end, a committed artist even as he was living as a retired pop star. Bowie’s exit from the spotlight of celebrity happened quite suddenly, on his 2004 Reality Tour. During that series of arena shows, he had never been more joyful or unironic on stage — an ageless satyr-prince, one who was now willing to just stand up and boogie, reveling in the glory of his golden years. But during one show, he collapsed and had to be helped off stage; it turned out he’d suffered a minor heart attack. That’s when Bowie called it quits, withdrawing into a meditative New York existence with his wife, Iman.
The movie recounts that cataclysm (and the healing that followed), and then traces the intimate process by which Bowie, after an extended break, returned to make two albums: “The Next Day” (2013), which marked his first encounter with the recording studio in seven years (it counts as the last vintage Bowie album), and “Black Star” (2016), an experimental jazz-fusion song cycle that was undertaken only after Bowie learned that he was battling cancer. He also wrote and staged a New York theater musical, “Lazarus.” What breathes through “The Last Five Years” is that Bowie, even before he knew he was ill, was consciously looking back — not as a way of living in the past, but as a new way to look forward.
It’s doubtful that a rock star has ever aestheticized his own death the way that Bowie did on “Black Star” (or in “Lazarus”). But even here, the vantage was that of an embrace. The way Bowie imagined it, Major Tom was heading back to space, to a deeper part of it than he’d ever known. Death, to Bowie, would not be an end; it would just be another one of his changes.
For years — for decades — whenever people wrote or talked about Bowie, it was required that they discuss his never-ending evolution in image, music, persona, attitude as if he were the ultimate rock ’n’ roll shape shifter. He didn’t invent that, of course. The original visionaries of pop shape-shifting, and still the all-time champions, were the Beatles. They established the template for reinventing yourself — from year to year, album to album, hairstyle to hairstyle — as a magical form of postmodern alchemy. But Bowie was the first to codify what the Beatles had pioneered, and in doing so he helped to set the stage for everyone from Madonna to U2 to Lady Gaga.
If you grew up with Bowie, then his famous gallery of images and unofficial characters — the mournfully out-there Major Tom, the glam-rock ambisexual alien peacock Ziggy Stardust, the melting-with-decadence cocaine vampire The Thin White Duke, the ironically “normal” blond dude in a blond suit who presided over the autocratic pop of “Let’s Dance,” and so forth — may well have struck you as larger-than-life. Each persona, in its way, was catchy, indelible, momentous. But if you grew up a little later, or if you look back on Bowie with open eyes now, the changes that appeared all-powerful then don’t seem nearly so profound. “The Last Five Years” filters the twilight of Bowie’s career through the prism of an era when he reigned as pop royalty, and what you perceive now, far more than the fashion-forward evolutions, is the dazzling continuity beneath them.
As the documentary captures rather startlingly, it’s less important today that Bowie was wearing psychedelic rainbow lightning facial stripes or rooster hair, or playing a boy swinging like a girl, or recovering from drug addiction in Berlin as he reinvented electronic Euro pop, or launching singles infectious enough to be Top 40 hits, or retiring to the studio in his early 60s to craft an album of soulful yearning in conditions secretive enough to launch the Manhattan Project.
In each case, Bowie’s instinct was to disarm and connect, and he did it with sounds, lyrics, and melodies that remain eerily untrapped in their time. If you’d only just heard “Suffragette City” or “Speed of Life” or “Ashes to Ashes” or “Blue Jean” for the very first time, it would be next to impossible to place them in period; ditto for the songs on the greatest album Bowie ever made, “Station to Station.” The whole vibe of his sound was throttlingly ahead. Watching “The Last Five Years,” I was shocked to be reminded that “Space Oddity,” seen here in a British TV clip, with Bowie performing live in fluffy hippie hair, appeared all the way back in 1969. The song blasted through the romance of the counterculture and into something far more creepy-spectral in its beauty. He was already the man who fell to earth.
In “The Last Five Years,” we see clips of Bowie culled from throughout his career, and we sit around with the musicians he made those last two albums with, and with his longtime producer, the genial Tony Visconti, all of whom recall him with fondness and insight. It was a special time in Bowie’s life: more relaxed but more guarded. He’d unplugged from the circus of celebrity (he’s quoted as calling fame “a very luxuriant mental hospital,” in which you’re cared for like a patient but locked up), and he wanted no pressure. So the recording of “The Next Day” was conducted without a deadline and under conditions of extreme secrecy; he even had the musicians sign NDAs. There’s a lingering wistfulness to the tale of how he recorded “Where Are We Now?,” the rapturous slow song in which he looks back on his time in late-’70s Berlin with the strangely un-Bowie-esque emotion of nostalgia. You might call it a sentimental track, except that it’s filled with ghosts.
The ghosts become all too real when Bowie is filming the videos for “Black Star,” which feature him as a specter with button eyes; in one, we see the vision of a spaceman, a nod to Major Tom, who’s revealed beneath his helmet to be a bejeweled skeleton. Bowie, as was widely reported at the time, confronted his own death with a kind of cleansing knowledge, and “The Last Five Years” fills in that portrait, most tellingly when the director of “Lazarus,” Ivo Van Hove, recalls how Bowie informed him over Skype that he’d learned his cancer treatments weren’t working and that he was “probably going to die.” Van Hove observes that for a split second, as Bowie said that, a flicker of fear passed across his face; then it was gone. Bowie finished his work on the stage show, complete with a trance-like version of “Heroes” that soared into the stratosphere. “The Last Five Years” captures the gorgeous sunset of a rock god, but it’s no mournful elegy. It’s a shivery celebration of Bowie’s genius audacity and how it never let it up.