'David Bowie: The Last Five Years' Compellingly Reflects on the Final Projects of the Artist's Life

Photo: HBO

If you are unfamiliar with the final, fertile phase of Bowie's career — which followed his retirement from performing, after a 2004 onstage heart attack — this is a fine introduction.

"Doctor Who" may have got its global premieres synchronized, but it took a year for "David Bowie: The Last Five Years," a film about Britain's other great cultural spaceman, to make it to the United States. Francis Whately's film, which premiered in the UK in January 2017, came to HBO on Monday on what would have been the singer's 71st birthday and two days before the second anniversary of his death from liver cancer.

Not much has changed in that time, of course, at least as concerns us here. Bowie still feels essential, necessary and oddly present — a useful example, the global legend as inspirational outsider. This is briefly a sad story — he dies in the end — but it isn't a tragic one.

Five years, as fans will know, is the number of years left to the world in Bowie's song "Five Years." (Halfway through the documentary, the song appears in a splendid 1976 performance from "The Dinah Shore Show." ) And it's the distance from 2011, when Bowie secretly went to work on a new album, eventually titled "The Next Day," to 2016, when he died, having produced another new album, "Blackstar," released on his final earthly birthday, and an off-Broadway musical, "Lazarus."

Whately, who made the 2013 Bowie documentary "Five Years" (on five key, nonconsecutive years in the artist's career), marshals pretty much the full cast of Bowie's late-career collaborators, including band members, designers, video directors and the "Lazarus" creative team. Producer Tony Visconti, who worked with Bowie on and off from his first album to his last (and was a member of Bowie's pre-Ziggy costume band, Hype, whose gear anticipated the Village People more than it did the Spiders from Mars), is present at a mixing board, isolating vocals, analyzing parts and remembering a friend.

If you are unfamiliar with the final, fertile phase of Bowie's career — which followed his retirement from performing, after a 2004 onstage heart attack — this is a fine introduction. If you know the period, there are many odd delights: goofy tour-stop footage, behind-the-scenes glimpses of videos in production, a good taste of "Lazarus" in rehearsal on stage, tales of genial collaboration, and lots of music. The continuing theme of the film is that fame isn't all it's cracked up to be ("I'm much more interested in the process of life," Bowie says, "the celebrity side of it, I couldn't give a sausage") but that work can be rewarding.

And the focus is almost entirely on the work. Although Bowie did not hide himself away, he was a successfully private person who managed to keep his terminal illness a secret even from the musicians with whom he was recording. (There is perhaps one shot of Bowie with Iman, whom he married in 1992, and a single sidelong mention of their daughter, Alexandria, born in 2000.) If little of the information here will be new to fans, the making of "The Next Day" and "Blackstar" having been much documented after their release, it's a treat to see the musicians who made them performing live to Bowie's vocal tracks — as close to a concert as history will allow.

There were better and worse albums over half a century, stumbles and recoveries, failed experiments and brilliant new forms. ("Blackstar," made with New York avant-garde jazz musicians, was especially exciting.) There was looking backward, but mostly to move forward — Bowie was always folding who he'd been into who he'd be, remaking old material in new voices — and "The Last Five Years," title notwithstanding, moves back and forth along a longer timeline, beginning when the singer was still using his given name, David Jones. Which of the Bowies we see was the "real" one, if any were, was beside the point; creating characters was always part of the game; change was a constant.

"Always go a little further into the water than you feel you're capable of being, go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don't feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom you're just about in the right place to do something exciting," says the artist.

This attitude is what kept him interesting when most of his peers had grown content to live off the successes of their youth. And it's what made him appealing to successive new generations — that and what comes across as a genuine mix of intelligence, ambition, charm, humor, modesty, generosity, borderless sex appeal, good looks and youthfulness.

"He did seem that he had the gift from the gods," guitarist Gerry Leonard says here, "that he was never going to get old." He did and he didn't, but in either case, Bowie made the most of it.

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