The single best moment in the new documentary David Bowie: The Last Five Years is also, fittingly, the most upsetting. “Look up here, man, I’m in danger,” Bowie sings, moans, elegantly wheezes, his vocal track isolated, his labored breaths between lines audible, painful.
“I’ve got nothing left to lose.”
We’re sitting in the studio with legendary Bowie producer and confidante Tony Visconti, who is running through the old tracks and selling this moment as a triumphant artistic ascendence, not a last-gasp physical capitulation. “It wasn’t that he was out of breath,” Visconti says. “He was, like, hyperventilating in a way. Like, getting his energy up to sing this, to deliver this song. He was quite stoked. I like to say ‘in the zone.’ And I could see him, through the window, that he was really feeling it.”
“Oh, I’ll be free,” Bowie sings/moans/wheezes. More labored breaths. “Ain’t that just like meeeeeeeeeeee.”
“A man on top of his game,” Visconti continues. “It’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant. And the saddest lyrics, to hear them now.” He goes quiet. His eyes well up.
The song, “Lazarus,” comes from Bowie’s final album, Blackstar. Opening lines: “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” In the typically unsettling video, Bowie writhes on what might be a hospital bed, a mummy-esque wrap obscuring most of his face, small beads covering his eyes. The record came out on January 8, 2016. He died of cancer two days later.
Directed by Francis Whately and premiering Monday night on HBO, The Last Five Years takes a somewhat pedestrian approach to the least-pedestrian human who ever lived. The otherworldly rock star’s touring years ended in June 2004, after a mild heart attack derailed the longest tour of his career, and one of his most lucrative; The Last Five Years chronicles his last two albums, Blackstar and 2013’s The Next Day, along with the eccentric off-Broadway musical Lazarus, which premiered in late 2015. Doting friends and reverent band members serve as talking heads, bantering somewhat awkwardly as they reckon with both his obvious genius and his flashes of majestic ordinariness. His brief obsession with a Montana truck stop big-claw machine, say, or the discordant way his skill for manipulating hype clashed with his announced contempt for actual fame. Bowie could make even the most mundane concerns, for civilians and rock stars alike, feel alien.
The movie’s structure, which mixes random-seeming flashbacks to various stages of Bowie’s supernova career with too-detailed analysis of every music video he produced for those last two albums, gets a little staid. (The maximally eerie clip for “Blackstar,” which features a human skeleton in a spacesuit, is well worth your time but doesn’t require much explaining.) But don’t turn down any chance to luxuriate in video footage of this person, even a somewhat labored 90 minutes’ worth. If nothing else, the chronologically scattershot approach makes clear that a full on-screen reckoning of his career and various personas would take 10 hours, minimum. The Last Five Years doesn’t come close to doing him justice, but that acknowledgement itself is a sort of justice.
Bowie’s collaborators are a jovially off-kilter bunch, from his longtime touring band (especially indispensable bassist Gail Ann Dorsey) to the gently starstruck New York City jazz crew (led by saxophonist Donny McCaslin) that powered Blackstar. But part of both the fun and the sorrow here is how dominant Bowie’s voice and aura remains, even in chronologically erratic sound-bite form. In various archival clips, he likens fame to “a very luxuriant mental hospital.” He describes the theatrically choreographed tour for 1974’s Diamond Dogs as both “hideously pressurized” and “alarmingly strenuous.” (His soothing-lava accent made even adverbs sound celestial.) He’s got jokes, or concessions that function as joke-like devices: “I wouldn’t dream of getting on a spaceship,” he notes. “It would scare the shit out of me.” And he neatly distills a gloriously mystifying career into a simple, lovely thesis:
I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations. ... If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.
This documentary’s feet are always touching the bottom, so to speak. But even if The Last Five Years builds a conventional framework for a notoriously unconventional person, that dissonance is its own sort of tribute, and offers another lesson worth reiterating: He did all this stuff because he’s the only person alive who could’ve thought of it, and most of the rest of us would’ve been scared shitless to do it even if we had thought of it. When you looked deep into the water and found no footprints at all, it was then that he carried you.