David Bowie has always been a presence in my life. One of my earliest memories of music is of me sitting in my mother’s car outside The Tortilla Factory, a now-closed restaurant, while Space Oddity played on the radio. My mom asked me if I knew what the song was about, and I said no, and she told me that it was about an astronaut who floats away from his spaceship without hope of rescue. This idea frightened me to my core and would haunt my dreams of being an astronaut for years.
Labyrinth was also one of those movies that we just had as kids. I don’t know how or when we got it. I only know that my sister and I watched that VHS well over a hundred times. It is one of those movies that, as a kid, you finish and then immediately start rewinding to watch again. Bowie’s roguish villain wasn’t scary to me as a kid but more mysterious and intriguing. I would fall for the same spells as Jennifer Connelly’s character.
When I got a bit older, my music taste was 1970’s or bust. Unsurprisingly, Bowie was a mainstay in my rotation. I thought his rebellion was strange. I didn’t see it as rebellion. His influence had made his image, sound, and behavior into a mainstay of the music industry.
Bowie, to me, felt like one of those personal celebrities. I think we all have them. The ones who somehow feel like they belong to you. You get more from them, and it’s a personal experience as opposed to the audience member position everyone else has. David Bowie felt like this for me. I felt an almost intimate relationship with his work, something that I couldn’t imagine other people had.
The news of his death came to me in a uniquely personal way that could only happen in the modern age. I didn’t find out on TMZ or Reddit, but from a tweet from his son, director Duncan Jones, saying that his father had passed away. I hadn’t even realized he was sick. I thought he was still modeling – just being the legend that he was. Finding out this way left me feeling as if his son had just personally told me that his dad, David Bowie, had died.
His last album, Black Star, which he recorded while fighting his illness left me distraught. The first couple playthroughs of that album were some of the most emotional listening experiences of my life. Listening to an artist who knows they are about to die, present one last piece of art was equal parts astonishing and agonizing. As a musical experience, I don’t think it can get more personal than Black Star, making it one of my all-time favorites.
But on to the documentary, produced by the BBC, which is available on HBO.
The documentary opens with the prologue of his 2003 tour. This tour featured a stripped-down Bowie in terms of performance and character but a great set list and huge crowds nevertheless. His bandmates recall it as the most fun they’ve seen David have. Then one night during a show he has a minor heart attack and the tour was canceled. That trip was his last.
The documentary has a strange pace. It presents the audience with a specific event in the last five years of Bowie’s life, but then relate it to a concept or an idea from his past. Sometimes the connections are odd and not relevant to the initial idea but the footage shown is always spectacular and raw performance.
For the beginning of the documentary, before the illness occurs and he’s working on Black Star and Lazarus, it’s okay. But once it introduces the idea of a man trying to produce his last piece of art before death, it feels rushed. We feel a gut punch and are immediately seeing a young Bowie kicking ass on stage again.
One part I think was unneeded and jarring concerning emotional context was a look back at a song collaboration with Brian Eno and interviews about how influenced by the electronic music he was at this point. The juxtaposition doesn’t feel intentional or that it lends anything to the sincerer and depressing 2015 David Bowie period.
The interviews are all clipped from Bowie’s life since the film was made entirely after his death. They are all excellent interviews though and relevant to the David Bowie we know now. The interviews with his directors, musicians, and friends are also unique and full of tidbits of knowledge and glimpses into his life leading up to and at the end of it.
The interviews with his producer remind me a lot of those VH1 Classic Album documentaries, where you get to hear the original masters and isolated tracks within a song. Those are very enjoyable and give you an insight into both Bowie and his collaborator’s talents.
The documentary, post-prologue, begins in 2011 when Bowie returns to the studio to record the secret album, The Next Day. This album stands out since it was released with just three months notice, coming out in early 2013. It mostly deals with his thoughts on fame and aging. There is an exciting interview about how badly he wanted fame and then how it wasn’t at all what he expected. Describing it as “a luxuriant mental hospital” and that it had trapped him. The early interviews juxtaposed with the modern songs jives together well.
The secretly filmed music videos are then discussed and shown briefly, and we get a good sense of Bowie’s ideas behind the songs and their commentary on fame, aging, and even gun control. It was fascinating to see this part of the documentary since it is in such recent memory. We suddenly, after seven years, had a Bowie sighting, and it was to release a brand-new album. Not just that, but we immediately got three exceptionally well done, artful music videos to compliment the release. Bowie does zero interviews for the album; he is finished with the idea of fame. His fellow musicians describe the collection as gestating within Bowie for seven years, and he eventually needed to give it life.
We then get towards the last stage of Bowie’s career, the musical Lazarus and the album Black Star, both of which he worked on at the same time. He knew he was sick by now but only told a select few, including the director of the play but not the cast. Some members of his backing band on Black Star knew, and some did not.
Bowie had always wanted to make a musical, and it was on his “bucket list,” so with his last months, he did. The play ends with a melancholy version of heroes as the main character dies and returns to space. It’s quite heartbreaking knowing what Bowie was going through while involved in the creation of this scene.
For Black Star, we get interviews with the backing band, the producer, and the music video directors. The video for the titular song “Black Star” includes a skeletal man in a space suit, Major Tom, as told by the director. He had finally found a home and was then able to rest and die.
While filming the music video for the song Lazarus off of Black Star he finds out it’s the end and he doesn’t have long left, and he tells the director over Skype. The video was already haunting but knowing this makes it almost unwatchable for me, causing me to feel like a sick voyeur while Bowie is on a hospital bed singing, “Look up here, I’m in heaven. I’ve got scars that can’t be seen. I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen. Everybody knows me now.”
It’s heartbreaking but so unique in what it gives fans of his art. Rarely if ever do we get an artist who knows he is dying to provide you with final messages and words to be left by. David Bowie did though, and it’s stunning and tragic, making Black Star one of the most exquisite pieces of art ever produced. The documentary itself is an excellent supplementary to it but could have been executed better. It confirms what you already know: David Bowie was a genius, a workhorse, and a lovely dude.
I’ll miss you star man.