David Bowie Taught Us How to Die: On HBO’s Magical The Last Five Years

TV Features David Bowie: The Last Five Years
David Bowie Taught Us How to Die: On HBO’s Magical The Last Five Years

It was pouring. We were driving back from Healdsburg in the dark, windshield wipers beating a dreary counterpoint to the CD my friend had put on in the car. He’d made me take him to Target for it, which shocked me, because Target gave both of us an itchy rash and because I would have thought Jon would definitely be all-digital by now. No, he said, he had to have the hard copy and yes, he was still enough of a teenage fanboy, more than a quarter century out of his teens, to be determined to get a copy the day it came out. So there we were, driving down 101 southbound listening to a freshly minted hard copy of Blackstar.

I thought maybe I’d done a little too much wine tasting or something because I started bawling at about the third chord change.

“Well, Bowie’s certainly trying to get the Weird back,” Jon said, muttering something about jazz. Jon’s about as smart as anyone I know when it comes to analyzing music, but I knew the minute those words left his mouth that he had it wrong this time.

“He’s not trying to get anything back,” I said. “He’s saying goodbye.”

I wasn’t sure why I suddenly just knew the guy was dying. At 69, David Bowie was a warhorse; Seeking the Weird or not, he was at the absolute top of his game on that album and he’d always seemed eternal. But the album was obviously a valediction.

Jon decided I’d probably had a little too much Old Vine Zin.

You know the rest: 48 hours later, just after his 69th birthday, and to the shock of all but a few, Bowie was gone. I still can’t believe that was two entire years ago.

HBO’s Bowie: The Last Five Years airs tonight on HBO. I won’t say it’s a perfect documentary, but it is an important one. No documentary could have completely captured the essence of David Bowie. An epic shape-shifter, a forward thinker even when he looked backward, one of the 20th century’s great style icons and a hell of a showman, Bowie was one of the most riveting human beings in music and incalculably influential: a star. Francis Whately’s documentary, it has to be said, can only try to keep up. It does it admirably, in a meditative, thoughtful style that incorporates footage from many periods of his career, weaving them with interview snippets with the people who worked on his last two records and his stage musical, Lazarus. The film walks a narrative tightrope that isn’t easy. It’s gracious. It allows a somewhat more personal look at someone who had endless personae, and it does it without disrespecting the private core of his life or unduly taking him apart. I absolutely recommend it as a look at a totally sui generis performer in the last part of his prolific and epically stylish career, and I recommend it as a much-needed Bowie-transfusion for people who just plain miss him. But there’s more to it than simply anatomizing the final years of a rock deity.

Is it going too far if I say Bowie might have taught us how to die?

Bowie’s “last” five years actually begin more like 15 years ago, with the “Reality Tour,” which was cut short when reality intervened and suffered him to experience a mild heart attack onstage. Out of the spotlight for almost a decade, Bowie returned to the studio under conditions of extreme secrecy to record The Next Day, and ultimately, Blackstar, during the recording of which he was aware that his cancer treatment had failed. With his signature perfect timing, he made his final exit a matter of hours after that record was released.

I saw Bowie in 2002, in a precursor phase to that tour. I hadn’t wanted to go. My husband had gotten me tickets as a birthday gift and I couldn’t bear to explain to him that it was over, that Bowie’d jumped the concert shark ages ago; I’d seen it, in Oakland in the late 1980s. That I didn’t have the patience for big stadium crowds anymore anyway, that it was going to suck and be one more depressing reminder that I’d missed him, been born too late, that he was already a sad pastiche of himself in 1987. Now, well, how old was he? He was my mother’s age, to the week in fact. If he’d already been Over in 1987, it was hard to imagine the image-shattering potential of Old Man Bowie. But it was a well-intended gift and I resigned myself to putting a brave face on it.

Lazarus, indeed. David Bowie was incandescent at that show. His voice had never sounded better, he moved like someone half his age, and he was obviously, can’t-fake-that, 100% having a blast onstage. He exuded a contagious kind of joy and gratitude, as if he were thrilled and surprised to find he had an audience to play for. It’s hard to fake gratitude even if you have the kind of showmanship Bowie had. This was not a persona. This was unvarnished, naked, unapologetic and unmasked, and it was glorious. From our VIP seats I could see every expression on his face, and it was the face of someone who had learned how to be who he truly was. If it sounds sentimental when I call it transcendent, then you clearly weren’t there. This was a man who was utterly alive, and in a cynical age it can be easy to forget how rare and thrilling it is to cross paths with a person like that.

Whately follows Bowie from that point to the quiet retirement following his cardiac glitch and then dives into the final blast of creativity that gave us his last two records and the stage show Lazarus. What’s Bowie-grade magical about it is that he does this with a serious paucity of material. Bowie did not undertake those last recordings with a media entourage documenting his every move: Indeed, the collaborators signed NDAs and worked in total secrecy. Bowie chose to be a cipher at the end, and Whately kluges together a picture of those five years from a combination of archival footage and posthumous interviews with collaborators; band-members; longtime producer Tony Visconti; videographers (the discussion of how the video for “Valentine’s Day” was put together was especially fascinating for me; I think it’s an amazing piece of art). The end result is pretty stunning, and one I think the notoriously private Bowie would have appreciated. It’s not a hagiography; it’s not a tacky dive into his private life. It’s a documentary about the making of his last works, and as such, it works.

In fact, what you don’t get, the stuff he wouldn’t let anyone have—that’s the whole point. Not many of us have the wherewithal to make art of our own deaths. He did it, and this documentary doesn’t destroy the canvas in an effort to understand the brushstrokes, and that’s as it should be. It doesn’t offer too many major revelations about its subject, but it doesn’t need to. If you want to get to the soul of David Bowie, it’s always been in his songs. All his costumes, all his phases, all his many faces and voices and guises and alter egos—they were all the Reality. Every Bowie was the real Bowie and every iteration was a different act of soul-baring, even if, as he says in an interview snippet, grinning at the camera, it was “part of his job as an entertainer to lie to you.” He may have lied, but he lied the way actors are lying when they assume a character, which is really only (as my sanguine 15-year-old recently pointed out), telling a different truth. He was a human kaleidoscope; yes, that’s a mirror-trick, but it’s still sacred geometry. Every shifting image is transient and radially symmetrical and totally real.

I don’t think it’s going too far to say this film reminds us that this shape-shifting artist left us an amazing example of how to live—and how to die. He pointed out that even your own death can be a work of art if you have your wits about you and the dedication to being real to use all the material the world gives you. Not all of us will pull it off. Most of us won’t. But it’s there, and there’s an amazing, relentless generosity in living your life in a way that proves it. If you’d like a glimpse at a fully inhabited human being and a fully lived life, watch The Last Five Years.

David Bowie: The Last Five Years airs tonight at 8 p.m. on HBO.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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