For years now, I’ve been gobbling up books about Bowie. Bowie in Berlin? Chomp. Bowie’s mime years? Mmm. Bowie’s impact on the 1970s? Ssslurp. And then, he died. And the whole world turned into a book about Bowie.
You’d turn on the radio to hear Iggy Pop reminiscing about the good ‘ole days. Your Facebook feed would suddenly feature some geezer trying to flog you a Bowie painting. You’d even catch your own reflection in the computer monitor, and realise you were reading Yet Another Bowie Article. (*Go ahead and do that now, you miserable sausage.) Some of it’s been good, some of it’s been cheap – but behind all the celebrations, it’s been hard to escape one simple fact. Bowie really has left the building. Pass the punch.
Thankfully, there was one piece of media that managed to cut through – and it did so by looking death right in the skull-sockets. You’ve probably already seen The Last Five Years, and agree that it was a sensitive, smart contemplation on how Bowie disappeared, reappeared with added mystique, then pulled off a magic trick worthy of those Victorian weirdos from The Prestige.
As the credits rolled I couldn’t escape the feeling that the film had – apologies for the cliché – helped me come to terms a little with Bowie’s death, though it still left questions around the mysterious symbolism around his final album and videos. So, the morning after a commemorative concert at Brixton Academy, I called up its director Francis Whately, hoping that he might share some personal insights.
A REALISTIC VIEW OF THE WORLD
Let’s begin with a beat. ‘Five Years’ is the first song on Ziggy Stardust. It’s a terrifying portrait of inevitable doom. It’s a euphoric vision of empathy. It’s a countdown to the apocalypse – one for Donald Trump’s playlist perhaps? – and for Francis Whately, it’s also a handy bracket of time.
“You’re right,” laughs Francis. “It’s a lovely number to encapsulate that thing. So for a TV person it’s very nice because we like to put things in boxes, and you can make a story without it appearing like a story. So there’s all that, it was my favourite song as a child – ‘Five Years’ was the one song that really resonated with me, so I was very happy with that, and it’s a song that says a lot about Bowie actually, about the way he looked at society.
“I think he had a slightly pessimistic and apocalyptic and gloomy view of the world; perhaps a realistic view of the world. And I think, at that time, he probably thought in five years that his career would be spent. He had no idea that he would go on and on in the way that he did. So I think it was very apt – and it’s a great song and the drum beat works very well!”
By the time we talk, The Last Five Years has aired around another time bracket: it’s been a year since the death of David Bowie. I explain to Francis that some Bowie fans have had problems getting over the news, and ask the potentially embarrassing question of whether his film might have helped some people make peace with a Bowie-less world.
“Maybe… I hope so,” he says. “It’s funny because, Gail (Gail Ann Dorsey, Bowie bassist) was very moved by the film. Because a lot of the band, especially The Next Day band, just hadn’t been able to watch those videos for ‘Blackstar’ and ‘Lazarus’. So I think it was a coming to terms for them, definitely.
“So maybe everyone now, a year on, can look at those and celebrate them for what they are. And it’s a man, I think fairly uniquely in the music business, saying ‘Look. I’m old. I’m dying. This is me. I’m not the young, beautiful Bowie I was, but this is me.’ And I think there’s a huge amount of integrity in that.”
PREPARE TO DIE
Typically for Bowie, this transparency wasn’t entirely transparent, however. His final album is a virtual Rubik’s Cube of strange symbols – not least Major Tom’s bones on the moon – and certainly the strongest occult streak since the dark photography of Heathen seemed to imply Bowie was communing with spirits in the basement. I ask Francis to what extent he thinks Bowie had planned, or even rehearsed a final persona in his last two albums.
“It’s an interesting one this,” he replies. “Mike Garson gave him the Jaques Brel album, where he had sort of prepared his death – it’s all about death. Bowie loved that album, by all accounts. He talked to Julien Temple in the 1990s about making a statement for his death. However. Not even David Bowie can prepare it quite as neatly as it appears now. To release an album and then for him to die two days later. I’m just not sure that’s how it worked.
“‘Black Star’, ‘Lazarus’ and ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ – listen to these songs in retrospect and you think ‘Of course, this was all planned.’ [But] You’ve got to remember Lazarus was written for the play a long time before. He had talked about death before – he had played the Jaques Brel song ‘My Death’ throughout his career. He was interested in death.
“I don’t think this was broadcast, but he said in an interview with John Wilkinson on Radio 4, ‘It’s not the getting old that I mind; it’s the death bit that’s the real drag.’ You know? I think that’s how he felt.”
Bowie’s interest in death has always been one of the fascinating aspects of his career. Watch the aforementioned ‘My Death’ on the Ziggy Stardust live album, and the singer’s emotional engagement with the song is profoundly moving. Bowie later delights in the darkness of ‘We Are The Dead’ from Diamond Dogs (1974), a zombie-eyed mediation on inevitable doom, while – as Francis observes, under different circumstances, Heathen (2002) could have been interpreted much the same way as Blackstar.
“If Heathen had been his last album, a lot of people would have seen a retrospective man growing older in it,” he says. “A man facing death. Asking: is there a God? All those questions that he asked himself so many times – and we would have thought the same.
A VERY NORMAL MAN
The Last Five Years starts with a short section about the Reality tour, during which Bowie appeared to have dropped the theatrical masks. Looking young, healthy and full of laughter, it naturally couldn’t last – and we all know that it didn’t. Yet, as the documentary shows, a curtain went up at the end of the Reality Tour, and when it came down again in 2013 with The Next Day, we would never get close to him again.
“Like Jagger, he really understood the power of PR. He knew that he was at his most exciting when he held back. Even in the Ziggy days, people would say ‘Can’t you come out and just do this other thing?’ and he’d say ‘No. Hold it back. Hold it back so they want more.’ And, with those last two albums he did that perfectly. So he can keep the myth,” says Francis.
“And I think when he was very accessible in the 90s and then early in the 21st century, in some ways he became possibly too accessible. You know, joking about on Jonathan Ross or Parkinson – or whatever it was. He may have said, ‘Well I don’t need to be the elusive one anymore.’ But then I think he thought after the heart attack, ‘Now, I need my privacy – and these two things will work together. I can be a very private man, and pick up my daughter from school and do all the things I want to do, while at the same time returning to the intrigue; the JD Salinger element that people had liked so much before.”
So which person was Bowie? Francis is convinced that, behind all the masks, there was a down-to-earth constant. “In my dealings with him he was very jolly. Very nice, normal, very jolly – and everyone I’ve ever met who’s known him says exactly the same. He was a very normal man.”
One of the most intriguing aspects of the documentary is, perhaps, a regular piece of song analysis. ‘The Stars Are Out Tonight’ becomes a commentary on the toxic nature of modern celebrity – as well as a supporting case for Bowie’s withdrawal from the spotlight.
“I have many stories that didn’t go into the film of him finding people coming up to him on the street really not a very pleasant experience,” says Francis. “Tony Oursler (Director, ‘Where Are We Now?’ video) tells a story of being at the Museum of Modern Art, and these women start coming and touching him. And he’s sort of looking at them going ‘Why are you touching me? Please stop touching me – I don’t appreciate that.’ I think he found it very uncomfortable.
“I know he missed London. I know he missed England. But he would have got harassed in a way that he didn’t in New York – where he could sit in a cafe and people would go ‘Oh, there’s David Bowie’ and leave him alone.”
Let’s go back to that weird photography on Heathen. In the 2002 pictures, Bowie appears to be rehearsing the role of the mysterious old man whom he would later come to play. But more than anyone he seems to be channeling one man: William Burroughs.
Burroughs’ ‘cut-up technique’ was famously adopted by Bowie for the Diamond Dogs lyrics, and the spirit of the Beat writer enters the room again on The Last Five Years. Bowie is seen to be literally cutting up the past to create the future on The Next Day’s album sleeve, and the form of the documentary mirrors this, going back to the ‘70s and ‘80s sporadically, to make a supporting case for Whately’s examination of the last five years.
“Obviously Adam Curtis is the guy who’s so good at all this stuff,” says Francis. “I think there is a film to be made with more of that Burroughs cut up technique. And there’s that song on The Next Day which ends with the Five Years drum beat. But there’s a huge amount to throw in there, and it’d be a really fun thing for an editor to do.
“I wasn’t consciously thinking like that, but films that I’ve really loved recently have been the Julien Temple film on Keith Richards, and of course Adam Curtis’ work, and more straightforward rock blogs, and I suppose it was an attempt to mix all those. So it is an attempt to mix a bit of all those – so it is a bit more of a cut up than the first film.”
PART OF HISTORY
As we near the end of the chat, it strikes me that Whately doesn’t come from the Louis Theroux school of filmmaking; he doesn’t especially see the use of putting himself in the frame. I am curious though, in light of the fact he’s now made two Bowie documentaries: what the big bang was for him? Why Bowie?
“Well because I’d known him, not properly but I remained in email touch with him, and I was a fan, I thought ‘what could be a better subject?’ I’d tried to get projects off the ground with him before, and actually the BBC had been stumbling block. And there was time in the ‘90s where I went to a senior commissioner and said ‘You know, we should do this’ and ‘I have access’ and blah blah blah, and they said ‘No-one is interested in David Bowie.’
“But this time, the time was right. The V&A exhibition – ostensibly it wasn’t an authorised exhibition, but for Bowie to have allowed that is quite something. To have given permission for all his personal stuff to be shown in that way, I think says quite a lot. And you know, maybe he was wrapping up loose ends?
“I would love to have had a camera to capture his expression when he went round that exhibition with his daughter and his wife, because I think it would have been extraordinary. For him to see his past laid out like that. It was nothing to do with him in a way – he had become part of history, and I think that’s how he saw it.”