A year on from his death the David Bowie tributes and appreciation keep growing. In the latest My Lawyer Will Call Your Lawyer, Astrid Swan and Nick Triani look at the BBC’s recent Bowie documentary.
A year on from David Bowie’s passing and my sense of loss remains. It’s hard to actually rationalize why Bowie’s death has had such impact. Yes, he was an exceptional pop star, but surely there must have been more for such widespread mourning? Bowie’s death seems to have left us with a different feeling than the usual outpouring of grief when a celebrity passes on – a collective sigh that someone really special has been taken away from us. One of the things that continues to amaze me since his death is how much of the weird stuff the public took on board (who would have known?). The affable, cross dressing alien was certainly one we could have had a pint with down the local boozer, if much of the good natured tales recounted in The Last Five Years are anything to go by. I’ve just started reading Paul Morley’s The Age of Bowie, and early on Morley recognizes how Bowie’s name stood out, even before he’d heard any music. The true sign of making your mark: get the name right. Having different coloured eyes is also striking. A new record (his last recordings) will land on Record Store Day, and finally Bowie won some Grammys. So the Bowie industry moves on. And it is a big one, Bowie transcending all digressions since death. For an artist that spent so much time moving forward and shaping the future, the nostalgia that now prevails around Bowie feels somewhat awkward. The myth making machine is deep into overdrive. Would David approve?
For an artist that spent so much time moving forward and shaping the future, the nostalgia that now prevails around Bowie feels somewhat awkward.
Francis Whately made the previous (and well liked) David Bowie: Five Years documentary, which focussed on Bowie’s late 1970’s output. This time Whately turns the spotlight on Bowie’s final years. So, what we get is a fairly entertaining and condensed version of the Bowie life story (including a lot of visuals from the previous documentary) with extra focus on Bowie’s last major tour – from 2003 – The Next Day and Blackstar albums and his Lazarus musical. Bowie narrates at times (the best bits) and then the rest is left to a wide variety of collaborators from various periods of his life. Tony Visconti (Bowie’s long standing record producer) has become the de-facto public voice/opinion on Bowie since the artist’s death. This is OK if a little too familiar now (of course, Visconti had that access to Bowie in his later years). I enjoyed the older footage and stories about glam adventures and how Bowie made it. The stuff about Lazarus the stage production was quite good too (and something that seems to truly reflect the scope of the living breathing artist he was). But the 2003/04 concerts – The Reality Tour – which are extensively covered here, were good, but nothing to get inspired by (I saw the Provinssi show). The fact that Bowie was just ‘being normal’ and put on a ‘no thrills’ show kind of misses the point of the Bowie I loved; Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, The Man Who Fell To Earth. This is juxtaposed by amazing footage of Bowie touring Diamond Dogs in 1974 (as if to prove my point) – we’re revealed an artist at the height of his powers, indulging in consummate theatrical brilliance.
Unfortunately at times The Last Five Years falls into the ‘classic albums’ form of rockumentary. There must be a better way of looking back at someone’s recordings than having some grey haired producer in jeans and a black t-shirt opening the faders and saying “listen to this – amazing eh?” And even more embarrassing is having Bowie’s last backing bands jamming over his records. I mean, WTF? Again, the futility of this is amplified by the various clips of Bowie performing over the years – especially a jaw droppingly great looking Bowie playing ‘Five Years’ on American TV in 1976. The Next Day and Blackstar both contain interesting moments, and going deep into the albums and video’s surrounding the projects reveals some insights (especially the last rites called on Bowie’s Major Tom alter-ego). But these later records don’t compare to Bowie’s best work (my own golden years cover 1970-1980). Yes, it was a creative burst of activity from a major artist, only highlighting the veracity of those albums by his subsequent death. Still, revealing the layers of detail isn’t always welcome (sometimes, with an artist like Bowie, the mystery is the essence). Thankfully Bowie’s own narration here is often essential, one quote about his legacy sticking out “I’d love people to believe that I really had great haircuts.” It’s hard to say if The Last Five Years is a must-see, but it is ultimately entertaining. One can surmise from watching The Last Five Years that the documentary covering Bowie’s life in all its glorious contradictions and chameleon like presence is yet to be made.
It’s been a year without David Bowie. The glitter has settled. The seasons have changed and returned. So many other dear ones have departed near and far…
I remember almost exactly a year ago today, singing ‘Space Oddity’ in front of 600 people in mourning. On that stage at Korjaamo I felt connected, crushed, empowered and just very small, as I borrowed the song for the moment. Thank you David.
David Bowie: The Last Five Years is just one of the many perspectives that have appeared in the aftermath. Surely, the time of recapping, reviewing and remembering – and creating memories – is only just beginning, but here we are nevertheless watching a documentary that claims to focus on the period that will now forever be known as the last five years. David Bowie has expressed (and expresses in this documentary) many times that he was not interested in fame or celebrity. This documentary finds quite good evidence for his claim from past interviews and video clips. Yet, the documentary itself remains obsessed with exactly the aspect of stardom that is confined in recognition and access. The documentary repeats a rhetoric of uncovering ‘the real David’, as if there was a reality to be found – one that has been obscured by make-up, outfits, varying sounds and productions. Is it so difficult to let go of the dichotomy and understand this movement as rhizomatic artistic development?
Yet, the documentary itself remains obsessed with exactly the aspect of stardom that is confined in recognition and access. The documentary repeats a rhetoric of uncovering ‘the real David’, as if there was a reality to be found
The documentary is inspiring and thoughtful, don’t get me wrong. Still, I have to focus on the irritation I felt while watching, because maybe there was a reason for my uneasiness. Can you imagine being a musician who has played in Bowie’s band? It must be a position of pride and loss as well as some kind of bewilderment: What just passed me by? David Bowie: The Last Five Years lets many of the voices of bandmembers from the last two albums in and allows these people a stage on which to relate how they related. This brings up problems: it is pretty much impossible to convey the process of recording with Bowie or arranging with him by recreating or simulating the situation after the fact – without him. It just creates a huge void; represents the missing or voices the loss that these session musicians, contemporary composers and jazz bands are feeling. Also, when has this ever been a good way of conveying the process of making music? Documentaries about albums and bands usually always fail here. Because music happens in a way that is non-verbal, often elusive, instinctual and many times completely private. Music is delicate and shy. By the time it has been brought to the band in Bowie’s hands, it has grown into a plant that can survive. It can weather the trial and error of the Others – because it is on life support, living through its creator. The David that no longer is.
I know, I am getting carried away and I’m attempting to express something that escapes me.
It is not so much the fault of this particular documentary as it is a cog in some bigger scheme. Every time Bowie appears in this documentary, I watch captured and in love. Sucking in air just a little harder – because maybe, that way some of the magic is transferred. And I want to catch the wisdom to keep working, trying and testing and taking it again and doing it differently the next time. Against all odds. Until death.