Throughout his transcendent five-decade-long career, David Bowie embodied a kooky cast of musical characters, ranging from hippie astronaut Major Tom to glammy space alien Thomas Jerome Newton.
Now, filmmaker Francis Whately is bringing him back down to Earth with a new documentary. David Bowie: The Last Five Years, which premiered at New York's DOC NYC film festival Friday ahead of its January premiere on HBO, is an affectionate peek behind the curtain of Bowie's artistic process, chronicling the creation of 2013 album The Next Day and 2016's Blackstar, as well as his off-Broadway play, Lazarus. Through never-before-seen archival footage and interviews with band members, the film shows a brilliant yet sometimes tortured side of the icon, who died of cancer last year at age 69.
Whately, who directed another Bowie documentary titled Five Years in 2013, chats with USA TODAY about his latest:
Q: You first met David nearly 20 years ago, when you worked on a project for the BBC together. As a longtime fan, what surprised you most about him?
I was very worried he wasn't going to be who I imagined him to be, but he was. He was very courteous; very bright. The real David was different from the persona you saw onstage or in interviews. He was a normal, down-to-earth guy, but astonishingly well-informed and clever. He read a book almost every day, and I would send him recommendations and he would send me things he loved. He devoured life.
Q: The documentary explores his complicated relationship with fame: how he aspired to be as big as Elvis Presley, but also felt uncomfortable with that level of attention.
In the '60s, he was very driven and wanted to be famous at all costs. He tried on musical styles just to be famous, (and) would move from one group of friends to another in order to advance himself. When he became Ziggy Stardust and the fame started, he welcomed it. But very quickly, it became tiresome for him. He was quite a shy individual, and while no one could hate some of the trappings of fame — cars to pick you up and tickets to whatever you want — the idea that he couldn't walk down the street, particularly in London, was an awful thing for him.
Q: Why do you think the ideas of celebrity and legacy weighed so heavily on him as he was writing The Next Day?
His daughter, (Lexi Jones), was born in 2000, so he saw those (childhood) years and it's bound to make you reflect on your own path. He clearly thought when his son, Duncan Jones, was growing up, that perhaps he hadn't had the environment to grow up in that was most conducive to a child. So he thought, "OK, the way to do this is to retreat (from the public eye)."
Once he had a heart attack onstage during the Reality tour (in 2004), he thought, "I have nothing left to say about my career." He wasn't one for looking back. From what I understand from the musicians (he toured with), he didn't spend time regaling them with stories about the past — he was much more interested in what was happening now.
Q: So if Next Day was rooted in nostalgia, what do you believe he was trying to say with Blackstar?
The evidence is that when he started that album, he didn't know he was ill. It's a lovely idea: that he knew he was ill and wanted to make this ultimate artistic statement. But what I gather from everyone was that he found out during the making of that album and the stage play, Lazarus.
Having done an album (like Next Day) that tied up the loose ends of his career, he was then ready to branch out again with Blackstar and do something that he wanted to do — what Brian Eno calls, "Crashing your plane and walking away." In some ways, Blackstar is like Young Americans or Station to Station, (where he was) using soul-funk musicians to create an electronic sound. Blackstar has jazz musicians playing rock music on it. I thought that was him at his best: putting things where they shouldn't be and making something new out of that.
Q: After his diagnosis, David gradually called his bandmates and collaborators to tell them he was dying. From what you gathered, how did he approach death?
Johan Renck, who was with him doing the Lazarus (music) video quite near the end, said that he got a sense that David was scared. No one else said that about him, but I suppose it would be surprising if he wasn't. The interesting thing about David is that he had a complicated relationship with spirituality. This is a man who wore a cross around his neck for most of his life; whose mother was Roman Catholic; who was fascinated by Buddhism; who wrote an album, Station to Station, about the Stations of the Cross. But this was also a man who, at various times toward the end of his life, said he didn't believe in God. I think anyone who's had that sort of relationship (with faith) throughout their life is bound to be scared at the end.