VOD film review: David Bowie: Five Years
Bowie the chameleon10
Bowie the musician10
Ivan Radford | On 27, Jun 2020Reading time: 3 mins
Director: Francis Whately
Cast: David Bowie, Carlos Alomar, Rick Wakeman, Brian Eno
Watch David Bowie: Five Years online in the UK: BBC iPlayer
“I allowed myself to be pushed into the commercial arena, because I’d never been there, and it was sort of ‘Ooh, what’s it like?'” That’s David Bowie reflecting on how he found worldwide mainstream success in 1983 with Let’s Dance – just one of many nuggets buried inside David Bowie: Five Years, one of the best documentaries not only about the musician but about music full-stop.
Produced and directed by Francis Whately, the 2013 film (originally broadcast after his surprise release of the album The Next Day) focuses on five key years in David Bowie’s career: 1971–1972, 1974–1975, 1976–1977, 1979–1980, 1982–1983. By singling out those key passages, they drill down into how Bowie changed his image during his career, from Ziggy Stardust to the Soul Star of Young Americans, to “The Thin White Duke”.
Bowie’s chameleonic identity, an inspiring and intriguing example of how to be yourself while also reinventing yourself in the eyes of others, have continued to make him a legend today for young and old people alike. And seeing him in action is a treat, with Whateley digging up archive footage not just from music videos and concerts but also talk show appearances and even him in The Elephant Man on Broadway.
That alone would be reason enough to tune in, but Whately combines that with interviews with those who worked with him. They talk through Hunky Dory – the first step out of this world from a musician who had honed a rock album to perfection – and his success with Let’s Dance, while stopping off to reflect on Scary Monsters for good measure. And they help unearth the influence of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed in Bowie’s Ziggy, but also highlight just how distinct Bowie’s voice and style was as a singer and composer.
Rick Wakeman, pianist for Hunky Dory, talks us through the unpredictable chord structure behind Life on Mars that nobody else would dare come up with, while Carlos Alomar, guitarist on Young Americans and more, breaks down the similarities between Fame and Fashion, and how the former track was formed by breaking down Bowie’s cover of Footstompin into a blues number. Watching – and hearing – Alomar recreate the way they layered up that riff to become the instantly recognisable opening to Fame is pure gold, while Bowie’s rare candid insight into his personal inspiration is the icing on that cake. “I’ve been a real idiot most of my life and that became part of parcel of the song, you can overcome some incredible odds,” he says of Heroes, summing up precisely why his legacy continues to live on today.
Can any programme do justice to all of David Bowie’s remarkable talent within 90 minutes? No, but this is as close as it gets. No wonder it ultimately formed the start of a trio of documentaries by Whately, comprising The Last Five Years and Finding Fame. With all three on BBC iPlayer, they form an unmissable triple-bill tribute to an unmatched music legend.
David Bowie: Five Years is available on BBC iPlayer until 14th July 2020.