In the early ’90s, Francis Whately met David Bowie after he asked the rock star to participate in a short film he was making for the BBC. For the next 20 years, they remained pen pals.
“He emailed me fairly regularly and told me about books he’d read, and I told him about books I’d read, exhibitions I’d seen, and that sort of thing. But we didn’t hang out or anything like that,” Whately recalled. “I think it may have been quite nice for him to have someone in England, who had English sensibilities, who was talking about books they’ve read and that sort of thing. I think he knew I was a fan, but I didn’t talk to him about his music.”
In 2013, Whately made his first documentary about Bowie, David Bowie: Five Years , about the artist’s pivotal early ’70s period. Now, he’s created a sequel called David Bowie: The Last Five Years, which documents an equally important era that occurred after Bowie’s semi-retirement in the ’00s, when he produced three acclaimed works — 2013’s The Next Day, the musical Lazarus, and 2016’s Blackstar — before his death from liver cancer at age 69.
The Last Five Years, which premieres tonight on HBO, includes never-before-seen footage of Bowie off-stage during his final tour in 2003, including a delightful sequence in which he goofs off with the musicians in his band at a truck stop in the middle of Montana. There are also illuminating clips of his first-ever show in 1970 with Hype, a pre-Spiders From Mars band with long-time producer Tony Visconti, that’s been called the original glitter-rock gig.
What The Last Five Years doesn’t have are interviews with Bowie’s wife, Iman, or his children or close friends who didn’t work with him in a professional capacity. Whately made a conscious choice to focus strictly on Bowie’s creative life, and spoke only with his backing musicians and collaborators like Visconti. What emerges is a film that salutes Bowie’s resolve to keep on creating even as he fell ill, while also respecting the boundaries around his private life that Bowie deliberately set down before he passed.