“something happened on the day he died”
David Bowie was a force: his death impacted me greatly despite me never claiming to be his biggest fan prior to his departure. It was the sense of impact that I felt when a larger piece of a whole is suddenly removed and its absence finally illuminates the sheer scale of its prior presence. He was one of the more remarkable and creative collectors of personas—in his words: “synthesizing those things in society . . . and producing some kind of glob.” He fought through this indelible urge to escape his temporary vocation of Fame, i.e., needing rock-and-roll in order to “get off and do other things.” His Berlin Trilogy is unmatched by anything he’d done prior to or after. August Brown (L.A. Times) writes:
Bowie’s albums evoked the city’s concrete Brutalism as metered out in martial rhythms and empty spaces. He conjured its eerie isolation with synthesizer experiments and melancholy vocal melodies and wrote poignantly about connections forged in spite of (and perhaps exactly because of) East and West Berlin’s literal disconnection from the other half of the city. Fans of dark, difficult, synthetic and lonely music have glamorized it ever since.
He was truly an artist until the end, rarely seeking entertainment above the truthfulness of his vision. He was a performer, his glam rock and artistic birth into the modern is unparalleled and, unlike the insufferable, pseudo-intellectualism of Lady Gaga (see Five Foot Two), he appears to be a bearable human being to be around.
That said, HBO recently released David Bowie: The Last Five Years, which feels more like special features for Criterion than a competent documentary about a rock star to rival, e.g., Long Strange Trip, Gimme Danger, or Stop Making Sense (to name some of my favorites, here are others). Despite the focus on Bowie in his last five years, he makes infrequent cameos; the filmmaker (Francis Whately) instead relying primarily on earlier footage and commentary from members of his band, who come off as stupendous bores.
There were certainly poignant moments, though, in particular the discussion surrounding his stay in Berlin and the story surrounding the song “Where Are We Now?”
The last 20-minutes saw a beautiful rendition of “Heroes” by Michael C. Hall in Bowie’s stage production, Lazarus. It was an excellent finale that overlapped well with Bowie’s own struggle and eventual defeat to cancer mere days after releasing his final album.
It was a sobering moment and a sense of congratulation for finishing well. For die-hard Bowie fans, this documentary will be a worthwhile 90-minutes. For the rest of us—don’t forget your smelling salts.