A 10-minute track that spans two fairly separate songs generally isn’t put out as the lead single from an album. But when you’re David Bowie, you can do whatever you damn well please.
But unlike many a rock star in their golden years, Bowie hasn’t used his status as an unassailable legend as an excuse to become difficult. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, according to director Johan Renck.
On a very rainy Thursday in Brooklyn, David Bowie’s “Blackstar” short film (the title track for his album ?, pronounced “Blackstar”) debuted in the trendy Williamsburg movie theater Nitehawk. Bowie wasn’t in attendance, but the video’s director (Renck) was, as well as longtime Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti (i.e., the man whose kiss inspired the song “Heroes”).
Following the premiere of the short film — an experimental yarn including elements of sci-fi, contemporary dance and Jodorowsky-esque symbolism — Renck participated in a Q&A discussing how he and Bowie linked up.
Believe it or not, Renck says connecting with one of rock’s most reclusive legends was surprisingly easy. While working on the European crime drama The Last Panthers, the Swedish director reached out to Bowie with the pie-in-sky idea that the British genius might write the theme song for the TV show. Shockingly, Bowie obliged.
“I think I started crying, actually,” Renck recalled of getting Bowie’s first phone call during a post-premiere Q&A. As a TV and music video director, Renck said he’s met his fair share of celebrities — and generally, they disappoint in person. But not with the Thin White Duke. “In David Bowie’s case, everything is true,” Renck said. “He’s honestly the most brilliant person I’ve ever met.”
Bowie, grey hair pointing to the sky, appears in the “Blackstar” video with his face covered in bandages, buttons subbing in for his eyes. Later on, he holds a black star-emblazoned book up like a Bible, recalling the religious imagery of his 2013 “The Next Day” video.
Not unlike that clip, dance plays a role in this film, too, but more in the Pina Bausch choreography sense. At various points in the film, non-Bowie people compulsively shudder, their shoulders bobbing up and down like they’re enduring a mild shock.
During the Q&A, Renck revealed the unexpected inspiration for that motion: Classic Popeye cartoons. Renck says Bowie was fascinated by the way background characters in the Max Fleischer ‘toons from the 1930s moved. Since animators were focused on the foreground action but didn’t want to leave the rest of the frame static, periphery characters would often repeat the same three-second motions for, say, 30 seconds of a cartoon frame. So Bowie suggested to Renck that the extras in his video do the same.
Needless to say, the result is strange, fabulous and fascinating. After all, this is a David Bowie project we’re talking about. Check out the video ahead of the album’s Jan. 8 release date above.