In January 2016, British director Francis Whately was making a film about actress Judi Dench. Then, his friend of over 20 years, David Bowie, died after a quiet battle with cancer. “I was as surprised as everybody else,” recalls Whately. Soon after, the BBC asked him to make a documentary on the icon, with one catch — it had to be done in a year’s time, by what would have been Bowie’s 70th birthday (Jan. 8). He started in September 2016 and finished in four months.
The result, David Bowie: The Last Five Years, just debuted on HBO. The doc is actually Whatley’s second on Bowie: In 2013, he directed David Bowie: Five Years, which explored five of the singer’s most iconic albums, from glam-rock androgyne Ziggy Stardust in 1971 to pop-funk commercial juggernaut Let’s Dance in 1983. “The first film covered the golden period, when most people were huge Bowie fans,” he says. “This one is more about the man.”
Whately dug through rare, archival material and extensive interviews with recent band members and collaborators to craft a fascinating and at turns haunting portrait of Bowie that shows just how fertile his last five years were. After nearly a decade out of the spotlight following a minor heart attack in 2004, Bowie had a burst of activity with two adventurous albums: The Next Day in 2013 and Blackstar in 2016, as well as the stage musical Lazarus.
“The sort of themes he was writing about in his music at the end were very much the same as the ones he discussed throughout the 50 years of his career,” says Whately. “These big themes of mortality, spirituality [and] fame.” Even as the director cast a revealing light on Bowie’s less public final years, he remained respectful of his wishes for privacy about his health. “I could have milked his illness a lot more than I did,” he says, “but the story I was telling was not about illness and death. It was about life.”