By Wendy Moscow
One of the most haunting images I’ve ever seen in a music video is David Bowie lying in a hospital bed, his eyes, swathed in surgical gauze, replaced by buttons. His arms rise upward, as if, Peter Pan-like, he could fly toward some Neverland in defiance of impending mortality. The song is called “Lazarus.” Bowie died on January 10th, 2016, two days after the video’s release.
Director Francis Whatley has crafted a remarkable documentary that celebrates the last five years of this electrifying singer-songwriter-actor’s career, during which some of his most brilliant work was produced.
Intercutting exhilarating concert footage from about a decade before with interviews with the musicians and other creative artists who collaborated with Bowie on his last two albums and a musical theater production (also called “Lazarus”), Whatley allows the viewer to better understand what drove this enigmatic and sometimes elusive icon.
My favorite interviewee is Bowie’s engineer/producer Tony Visconti, who obviously had enormous respect and affection for him. At one point, sitting at a soundboard, he isolates Bowie’s voice from the mix, stripping away the instrumental tracks. Visconti wants us to hear the raw emotion coloring his vocals – and the effect is both chilling and beautiful.
Bowie described himself as “synthesizing what’s going on in the culture,” rather than being an innovator. But throughout the film, we see him entering into collaborations with cutting-edge artists – and the genre-bending results are breathtaking.
The recurring motif of the space-traveler inhabits Bowie’s persona across his lifetime – from Major Tom in the song “Space Oddity” to Thomas Newton in the film “The Man Who Fell To Earth,” to his final project, “Blackstar, in which the spaceman becomes a skeletal apparition of who he had once been. Described, in the film, as Bowie’s “inner space writ large,” this notion of a lone adventurer drifting across the cosmos becomes a perfect metaphor for Bowie’s unique vision – untethered to convention and free to explore worlds unknown.
“David Bowie: The Last Five Years” will have its U.S. premiere as part of the DOC NYC festival. November 10, 9:15 p.m., at the SVA Theatre, 333 W. 23rd St.