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New HBO Bowie Doc Focuses on Last Five Years of Creativity
January 8, 2018  | By David Hinckley

David Bowie admitted he wanted to be famous. He also insisted he preferred to be invisible.

That dogged and impossible quest continued right to the end, judging from HBO’s new documentary David Bowie: The Last Five Years, which premieres Monday at 8 p.m. ET.

Produced and directed by Francis Whately, this loving and reverential doc focuses on Bowie’s impressive artistic output from 2011 until he died on Jan. 10, 2016.

He was suffering from terminal cancer over those years, a fact he hid from much of the world while he completed two albums and wrote the Off-Broadway musical Lazarus.

He didn’t tour, he didn’t do interviews, he didn’t appear in public. He did make a final video, the eerie Lazarus, in which he tosses about in bed blindfolded, with button eyes and a shock of grey hair.

It was raw and stark, the flip side of the Bowie who for decades presented himself in spacesuits, sparkles and whatever would require his audience to wear industrial-strength sunglasses.

An old clip shows Bowie musing that he was the first to present full-on glam-rock, and if he wasn’t the first, he certainly was a founding father.

For two decades he was the man of a thousand faces, costumes, masks and hairstyles – part of his plan, he admits in an old interview, to become famous. But not, he insists, because fame per se interested him. Only because fame would give him the platform to reach the largest possible audience with his art and his ideas.

Whately returns repeatedly to this notion and fully embraces it. His Bowie comes off as an artist whose driving obsession was that people hear what he had to say and perhaps find themselves moved or even changed by it.

Because Bowie made few public comments during his last five years, Whately taps Bowie’s musicians and some of his collaborators to suggest he continued pursuing this objective to the end. 

The Last Five Years nominally begins with the 2011 sessions for The Next Day, his penultimate album.

In a sense The Next Day marked a resurfacing, since Bowie had largely dropped out of sight after suffering a heart attack on stage in 2004. At the time, though, almost no one knew he was returning. He had members of his band sign non-disclosure agreements swearing them to secrecy, and he didn’t release the music for two years.

The Next Day became a No. 1 hit, and Whately’s witnesses say it marked a maturation in Bowie’s music and message, revisiting subjects he had explored years earlier in his youth.

Lazarus, the stage show, evolved into a series of vignettes built around the character Bowie played 40 years earlier in The Man Who Fell To Earth.

His final album, Blackstar, was released two days before his death. One of things it did, suggests Whatley, was bring peace to Major Tom, the character Bowie made famous in a lost spaceship decades earlier.

Whately, and his witnesses, make a convincing case that Bowie not only had a remarkably creative burst over the last five years, but that he brought much of his earlier work full circle – not exactly wrapping it up in neat bows, but putting it in a new and forward-looking perspective.

Its title notwithstanding, The Last Five Years also features extensive footage of the younger Bowie performing many of his most popular songs, from “Rebel Rebel” to “All the Young Dudes.”

In that process, it also inevitably brings the story back to Bowie’s relationship with fame.

In one early interview clip he matter of factly admits that when it comes to a public persona, an entertainer is often a bit of a con man. So let’s say it’s possible he was a little more taken with the persona and the fame than he let on.

True or not, that wouldn’t diminish his work, and Whately makes an impressive case that behind his public silence Bowie remained artistically vital to the end.

Whoever he was or wasn’t.

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