VOD film review: David Bowie: The Last Five Years
James R | On 28, Jun 2020
Director: Francis Whately
Cast: David Bowie, Robert Fox
“I would love to feel that what I did actually changed the fabric of music.” That’s David Bowie reflecting upon his music – and his legacy – in The Last Five Years, a documentary that charts the final chapter in the career of a cultural icon. The film, directed by Francis Whately, is a follow-up to David Bowie: Five Years, which looked at crucial moments in Bowie’s life, as he moved from one persona to another, from one genre to another. While that gave us a remarkable insight into Bowie’s musical wizardry, his chameleonic charism and his generous artistic collaborations, The Last Five Years strives for something more intimate and personal.
“Even though I superficially changed a lot, a style did come through,” Bowie muses in hindsight, and Whately once again does a solid job of unearthing and editing together clips and concert footage to mix with behind-the-scenes anecdotes – Bowie gave no official interviews between these years of 2011 and 2016, which leaves him potentially absent from the whole endeavour. (“If you got a smile, you were headed in the right direction,” one musician says of how Bowie directed the recording sessions without being over-communicative.)
These rehearsal room anecdotes are where the film really soars, as we learn about Bowie’s quiet return to making music behind closed doors (again, no video footage exists) . The people involved had to sign NDAs, but Bowie, we hear, was more relaxed than ever, in the vein of his A Reality Tour, which saw him laidback and playful, a man who had reached the point where he didn’t care as much what people thought of him. He even clocked out on time without pushing the extra hours into the evening until everyone was spent.
That shift in attitude is backed up by some brilliantly funny home videos of him offstage on tour and him chatting in a restaurant with the rest of the band. His sense of humour has never been so apparent on camera, and Whately’s ability to tease out that side of him makes for an often revelatory watch, especially after Five Years emphasised how studiously elusive he was.
And yet there’s also a thematic consistency that draws a line through his work, as Bowie communicates concerns about alienation and fame – particularly coming to the fore in Lazarus and The Stars (Are Out Tonight), the latter of which featured Bowie and Tilda Swinton playing a married couple in the music video.
Bowie was as prolific as ever, too, not only putting together The Next Day and Blackstar, but also the musical Lazarus. We learn of how he was talking of doing a sequel to the stage show, even as he learned that his cancer was terminal, and of how he deliberately began to be more autobiographical in his songs, such as Where Are We Now?, as he penned his final albums.
The result, like Five Years, isn’t a comprehensive portrait of Bowie’s career, but it forms an excellent companion piece, one that zooms in (even through second-hand eyewitnesses) upon the enigmatic, often unknowable figure. It’s telling that on its own, the film doesn’t quite peel away that legend to reveal the man beneath – it’s perhaps too straight-laced for that. Instead, we get glimpses of it, like his breathing that can heard at the end of each line in the recording of Lazarus. It’s also telling that Whately’s way to get to know the man remains through his music. Sampling his most personal work, the result is a piece of respectful filmmaking that’s packed with poignant insight.