Outside of ’60s monoliths The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, it seems likely that no musical career has been as comprehensively recorded on film as David Bowie’s. Documentary filmmakers have caught him at highs (D.A. Pennebaker’s classic Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars) and lows (Alan Yentob’s 1974 BBC project, Cracked Actor, a painfully raw account of Bowie’s LA-coke-hell period); Todd Haynes blew him a glittery kiss in 1998, with the glam-rock fantasy Velvet Goldmine; and Bowie’s own acting roles, such as his portrayal of an alien in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, have often felt like an extension of his musical persona. And those are only a few of the best-known examples of cinema’s obsession with David Bowie, a man whose IMDb page boasts no fewer than 153 “as himself” credits.
All of which is to say that the market for filmic analyses of Bowie’s career has been saturated for decades, and his recent aversion to interviews means that most of these projects have become exercises in crate-digging through old audio and video and/or wheeling out old collaborators for talking-head interviews. Francis Whately’s David Bowie: Five Years, which premiered last year on BBC Two and will make its stateside debut on Showtime tonight at 9pm, is a product of those same constraints. What elevates it above the standard rehash are its concept — zeroing in on five crucial, nonconsecutive years in Bowie’s career — and the quality of the material Whately has assembled, from carefully curated outtakes and other rarely seen footage to thoughtful interviews with such A-list Bowie associates as Brian Eno and Nile Rodgers.
Five Years may not be especially interesting to casual fans, but Bowie completists will treasure its behind-the-scenes tour of his most creative periods. The film begins with 1971 and the birth of the Ziggy Stardust character; what caught my eye was an outtake from the “Life on Mars?” video in which a red-mulleted Bowie drops his rock-star-space-alien mask for a moment and relaxes. It’s a subtle transformation, but a reminder of the mostly invisible work that went into creating the Ziggy character. Jumping to 1975 and the Thin White Duke, Bowie’s onetime girlfriend and backup singer Ava Cherry recalls taking him to the Apollo. His longtime guitarist, Carlos Alomar, describes meeting Bowie and thinking he was “the whitest man I’d ever seen.” And it’s kind of hilarious to watch Earl Slick repeat the phrase “out there” a dozen times in an attempt to explain how a troupe of coked-up geniuses and virtuosos kept it together for long enough to create Station to Station.
That period was the closest Bowie ever came to destroying himself, but in the grand scheme of his career, it didn’t last long. By 1977, we’re in Berlin with Eno, who is as quotable now as he was back then: “I didn’t understand how good musicians worked,” he explains. “I’m not a musician, myself.” Producer Tony Visconti tells the story of how he introduced Bowie and Eno to the harmonizer, promising them that it “fucks with the fabric of time.” In interviews with the likes of Robert Fripp — still delightfully nuts, in case you’re wondering — Whately gives a great sense of the casually collaborative geekery that characterized the making of Low and “Heroes.”
Then we’re into the next decade, with a brief section on 1980, the year of “Ashes to Ashes” and its stunning music video — whose storyboards are provided for our gawking pleasure. Five Years closes with 1983, framing Let’s Dance and the optimistic pop sensibility that Bowie embraced in the mid-’80s as just another well-timed transformation. “I’m trying to write in a more obvious and positive manner,” he tells us in an archival interview. Most of the musicians Whately speaks to have their instruments at the ready, but it’s especially thrilling to watch co-producer Rodgers demonstrate his own contributions to “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl.”
The transitions between sections of Five Years are abrupt, albeit in a way that feels truer to Bowie’s creative trajectory than any attempt to fit all of those rebirths into one neat narrative. At one point, in an interview from the ’70s, the man himself tells us about the way he synthesizes influences, endeavoring to capture the spirit of the year. As a document of Bowie’s career highlights, Five Years is able to do something similar; in the process of retelling his story and dazzling super-fans with rare ephemera, it also ends up tracing how the sexually liberated ’70s became the optimistic, materialistic ’80s.