When David Bowie passed away from cancer days after releasing the album “Blackstar,” I marveled at how profound it was to be able to create a work of art about your own death, to reckon with that in such a meaningful way, and leave it behind for your family and the world. How moving and incredible to be able to somehow orchestrate the end of your life that way.
So with great interest I viewed a much-hyped new documentary called “Bowie: The Last Five Years,” because for someone to know that their last five years are in fact their last, and to make art out of it, was immensely interesting to me.
The filmmaker seems not to have shared my interest in these last five years. This was a perfectly adequate kind of overview of Bowie’s life’s work. Director Francis Whately did not focus on the last five years in particular at all. I didn’t time it all out, but there may have been less about the end than anything else. This documentary functions as more of an introduction to various tours and albums of Bowie’s, but hardly fulfills the title’s promise of an in-depth treatment of his impossibly fruitful final days.
The film begins with Bowie’s final tour, over a decade ago, a joyful and energetic affair brought to a sudden end when he suffered a heart attack. This heralded the beginning of the health issues that ultimately ended his life.
After a long recovery, Bowie reached out to his touring band with plans to record a new album, in secret, with no expectations of when it would be finished. The result was “The Next Day,” and the many music videos created for that album form a large portion of this film.
Interviews with musicians are, to varying degrees, interesting, and his producer in particular has some erudite comments to contribute. But that deep dive I sought never occurred, and the film begins to weave, rather ineffectively, through Bowie’s entire career. We learn that Bowie always wanted to write a Broadway musical, and decades earlier attempted to mount a production of an adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984,” bringing us, finally, to a project that fits my criteria of inclusion because it was from the last five years, “Lazarus.”
Bowie adapted this Broadway musical from the book “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” which, of course, was the basis of a film starring David Bowie about an alien who came to Earth and, in the play, is now existing as a man unable to die. Recasting classic Bowie songs for this story is a nice metaphor for the closure the production seemed to bring the dying musician.
Which brings us to his final album, “Blackstar,” in which Bowie sings “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” lying, in the music video, in a hospital bed. What a compelling counterpoint to the rock ‘n’ roll image of dying young, extinguished suddenly, is this mournful but powerful image that Bowie had the strength to create himself. This lightweight documentary fails to engage meaningfully with such rich material, remaining instead a merely adequate overview of a singularly fascinating period in the life of this artist. The work of Bowie’s “Last Five Years” will have to continue to speak for itself, and it more than does so.
“Bowie: The Last Five Years” is currently available to stream from HBO.