David Bowie: what we learn about his mysterious final years in the new BBC documentary

Buy Tickets

The revelations, memories and fascinating trivia to be found in David Bowie: The Last Five Years

For the people who aren’t attending one of the vast array of tribute concerts marking the one-year anniversary of David Bowie’s death this weekend, the BBC are airing a new 90-minute documentary David Bowie: The Last Five Years on January 7. While utilising unseen footage to cover many major points in Bowie’s history, the film focuses on his late-period resurgence from 2011, covering his final two albums ‘The Next Day’ and ‘Blackstar’ and his work on the musical Lazarus. Here are ten things we learn from the film.

 

His last tour was his happiest

According to band members on the A Reality Tour of 2003/4, Bowie’s final tour saw him happier and more open than he’d ever been on stage, dropping what they describe as “the serious artist thing” to “allow more access to himself”. The film includes footage of Bowie attaching flashing baubles to his face, miming a charade of Hitchcock’s The Birds backstage using a plastic crow and comically stating, “I’m not really very keen to put on much of a theatrical show in terms of big sets and fireworks and elephants. Of course that doesn’t mean that I won’t go back on my word because that’s part and parcel of what I do for you. Part of my entertaining factor is lying to you.”

 

 

His break made him question his celebrity

After the worrying end to that final tour – bandmates describe how Bowie was rushed offstage in Prague after encountering difficulties singing and then collapsed from a mild heart attack after performing at Germany’s Hurricane festival – Bowie didn’t have much contact with his band for seven years. When the emails came in asking them to play on his new record ‘The Next Day’, they found Bowie much changed. His long working days were now curtailed at 6pm, he joked about getting so old he had to wear slippers in the studio and the songs which they were improvising around his pages upon pages of lyrics and home demos were far more reflective and autobiographical. While ‘Where Are We Know?’ obviously referenced his Berlin period, much time is spent dissecting the implications of ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’, which bassist Gail Ann Dorsey calls “a good pisstake on what fame has become, this out of control machine.” Interviews and classic footage dissect Bowie’s discomfort with celebrity through the years, how he created characters to get over his onstage shyness and how he found fame good for getting gig tickets, backstage passes and restaurant tables but otherwise “a pain in the ass”.

 

 

The secrecy around ‘The Next Day’ was CIA-level

On the first day of rehearsals, the band were required to sign non-disclosure agreements to prevent news of the recording getting out, and even when discussing the album artwork on the phone with designer Jonathan Barnbrook the record was refered to by the codename ‘The Table’ in case the call was being tapped.

 

 

The ‘Song Of Norway’ T-shirt was a nod to a cheating ex-girlfriend

While many references to Bowie’s past ‘Where Are We Now?’ and its video were overt, the T-shirt reading ‘Song Of Norway’ that he wore has been the root of much speculation amongst fans. It was clearly a 1970 film that Bowie’s then-girlfriend Hermione Farthingale had appeared in, but the documentary explains that in was on set that she met another actor and left Bowie for him. It was Bowie’s first major heartbreak and took him some time to get over.

 

 

Even ‘The Next Day’’s art designer wasn’t sure the cover was any good

While Bowie wavered between titles such as ‘Love Is Lost’, ‘Where Are We Now?’ and ‘The Next Day’, he was certain that he wanted to subvert old images of himself on the sleeve. His initial idea of turning an old live photo of himself upside down gave way to Barnbrook screwing around with every Bowie album cover until they settled on the final artwork, representing “someone coming to the end of their life and looking back at the past”. Even then, the night before it was sent to the label, Barnbrook messaged Bowie to ask if he was sure about it. “He said, ‘Have faith, Jonathan, this is an original idea.”

 

 

It was Bowie’s teenage dream to write a Broadway rock musical

From the age of 17 or 18, an old Bowie interview tells us, he’d dreamed of creating a rock-based musical on Broadway and, 50 years later, the producer of Lazarus claims that it remained on Bowie’s “bucket list”. The musical began as merely a title and concept – a sequel to The Man Who Fell To Earth – but, despite telling the core production team that he wouldn’t be around for much of the rehearsals due to his illness, Bowie was an almost constant presence as the show came together. Producers assumed that Lazarus was Bowie ticking off a long-held ambition, knowing his health was failing. In fact, after the opening night, he took them to one side and spoke about making another musical.

 

 

 

He literally sketched out ‘Blackstar’

It’s tempting to believe, considering their symbolic and personal nature, that Bowie had strict creative control over the imagery of his final videos. Not so – director Johan Renck was sent sketches of a character they called Buttoneyes and a spacesuit with a skeleton inside (“To me it was 100 per cent Major Tom,” he said, “Major Tom is home finally”) and told to use them as he wanted. He also came up with the idea for Bowie to be in bed for the ‘Lazarus’ video.

 

 

Bowie didn’t know he was dying while recording ‘Blackstar’

According to Renck, it was only around the making of the video for ‘Lazarus’ that Bowie learnt that his illness had become untreatable. When Bowie told him over Skype ahead of the shoot that he was likely to die soon “I thought for a brief second he looked scared actually, then a second later he would joke about it.”

 

He rocked until the very end

The documentary’s commenters all agree that Bowie’s illness never seemed to hold him back.  “Over the next six or eight months the disease was never mentioned,” Renck says, “in my eyes he wasn’t in any way affected by his illness.” Everyone else remembers Bowie being creative and enthusiastic throughout his ordeal; Tony Visconti plays takes of David “stoked” and passionate as he sang ‘Lazarus’ while a member of the Donny McCaslin group who backed him on ‘Blackstar’, unaware of his cancer, recall him seeming “healthy and energetic and in great spirits”.

 

 

He wanted his hair to be his legacy

Bowie’s humour echoes throughout the film – when asked about his interest in outer space he jokes “I wouldn’t dream of getting on a space ship, It’d scare the shit out of me… I’m scared going down the end of the garden.” And to wrap up the documentary an old interview is uncovered where Bowie was asked what he’d like his legacy to be. “I’d love people to believe,” he says, “that I really had great haircuts.”

 

David Bowie: The Last Five Years is on BBC Two at 9pm on Saturday January 7