Inside David Bowie's Final Years: A New HBO Documentary Reveals the Making of 'Blackstar' and 'The Next Day'; before David Bowie Died, He Was Reborn

By Schonfeld, Zach | Newsweek, January 19, 2018 | Go to article overview

Inside David Bowie's Final Years: A New HBO Documentary Reveals the Making of 'Blackstar' and 'The Next Day'; before David Bowie Died, He Was Reborn


Schonfeld, Zach, Newsweek


Byline: Zach Schonfeld

On January 11, 2016, Francis Whately overslept. An insomniac, Whately often struggles to fall asleep, though he's noticed that when something very bad happens, he tends to sleep right through it.

Whately's alarm didn't go off that morning. He woke around 9:30, turned on his cell phone and was greeted by two dozen text messages and voicemails: David Bowie was dead. There was a request to appear on a radio program, too, but Whately had already slept through it, which was fine, because he needed time to process this news. Two days after the rock star's 69th birthday, he had succumbed to a cancer he'd fought in secret for more than a year.

Whately, a documentary filmmaker and the director of the 2013 BBC film David Bowie: Five Years, which examines the star's 1970s and '80s heyday, was stunned. He had not known his hero was ill. And the timing was eerie: Bowie had just released his most daring album in decades, the freaky, jazz-addled LP Blackstar. Still, there had been clues, like the persistent imagery of death and mortality on the new album. "Look up here, I'm in heaven," Bowie sings at the start of one song. "I've got scars that can't be seen."

There was also the puzzling note Whately had received from Bowie a month before. "He wrote me a rather odd email saying that he was very happy with the new album," Whately recalls. "And he was very happy with his lot in life. And he said, 'What more can anyone ask for?'"

The filmmaker had noted the strangeness of the email, but figured that was just Bowie. "He would often write quite odd things," Whately says. "His emails were very amusing. And quirky. And unusual. It was only after he passed away that I thought, 'OK, is this actually him saying goodbye?'"

Indeed, it seems Bowie was saying goodbye--in email, in song, in secret. The pop star's death was so eerily timed to the release of his musical farewell that it seemed like mortality itself was part of the fabric of his art. Whately's new film, David Bowie: The Last Five Years, traces the contours of that musical farewell. The film (debuting on HBO on January 8--Bowie's birthday) examines the sudden shock of inspiration that overtook Bowie during the final years of his life, both before and after his 2014 diagnosis with liver cancer. Whately recreates the making of the star's last two albums, The Next Day (2013) and Blackstar (2016), and peers behind the scenes of his stage play, Lazarus, which opened off-Broadway in late 2015.

Despite its title (a nod to the Ziggy Stardust track "Five Years"), the film's story really begins years earlier, in 2004. That was when Bowie's final world tour came to an abrupt end, after the star suffered symptoms of a heart attack onstage in Germany. Bowie's bandmates recount the frightening moment he began sweating profusely and lost his ability to sing. After undergoing an emergency angioplasty, the star retired from touring and vanished into private life in New York City. Years passed. Bowie's 60th birthday came and went. Fans assumed the pop chameleon was done making records. Then, in 2011, members of his band got an email: Bowie was ready to work again.

Related: David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and the art of the farewell album

The Next Day--which would become Bowie's first studio album in a decade--was recorded in deep secret, as though it were a CIA operation. Musicians were required to sign NDAs. Bowie set up shop at The Magic Shop, a downtown Manhattan studio where interns were dismissed on the days he was recording, to limit the possibility of a leak. (He successfully kept the project quiet.)

Whately wanted the documentary to provide an intimate glimpse of those recording sessions. That proved tough. "[Whately] kept saying to me, 'Oh, we'll get the footage from the Next Day sessions,'" says guitarist Gerry Leonard, who has worked extensively with Bowie. "In the back of my mind, I was like, 'There was no footage. …

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