David Bowie stage-managed the last years of his extraordinary life – and death

"Blackstar and its Lazarus video seem part of an elegantly staged theatrical exit, the final curtain in a lifetime of high-impact performance"

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“I had this poetic, romantic juvenile idea that I’d be dead by 30. And then suddenly you’re 40. And then 50. Then 57.” This fresh intimation of mortality comes in 2004 though, at that point, life for David Bowie couldn’t be more delightful. His vastly successful Reality Tour has been barrelling across the globe for nine months and footage in a captivating new documentary shows the immaculately preserved 57-year-old fishing cuddly toys out of glass tanks at a fairground with his band, trying on some earrings with flashing lights and pecking his bass guitarist on the shoulder with the beak of a plastic bird while shouting, “Guess the movie!”

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But a significant change is just around the bend. While on tour, he is rushed to a German hospital with a blocked artery, and so begins a mysterious and extraordinary period of disappearance. Bowie had always said this tour would be his last, we discover, as he wanted to help bring up his new daughter Lexi, and he effectively retires from making music. Retreating to his New York duplex, he wanders round the city with a baseball cap, hoodie and Greek newspaper to disguise himself, painting, collecting art, reading a book a day, boxing, seeing the odd band and theatre show and remaining as inscrutable as he is invisible.

Even his final burst of creativity is shrouded in secrecy, which makes the revelations in Bowie: the Last Five Years (on BBC2 on 7 January, the day before what would have been his 70th birthday) all the more enthralling. Like its director Francis Whately’s 2013 film, Five Years (set in the 70s and 80s), it’s a fond, fast-paced and celebratory chronicle in Bowie’s own words with contributions from friends and collaborators, and includes glorious unseen footage – his spangly 1970 act the Hype on stage (“the first glam rock gig”), a rare performance of Lady Stardust, wonderful shots of sessions for the Next Day album in 2012 with Bowie making its videos, emotional film of his last band at a memorial supper the week after he died, and hilarious clips from a Damien Hirst exhibition.

“He was an artist, not a musician,” Whately points out, “an artist who used music as his medium. You can’t say that of Mick Jagger or Bob Dylan. He was always playing parts, acting roles. When he’s with Damien Hirst he’s being Geezer Dave – in the same way that he could be Ballet Dave or Theatre Dave or Rock ’n’ Roll Dave. He was inter- ested in every aspect of life.”

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David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust

I interviewed Bowie in 1994 and got the same impression. He’d contributed 17 computer-modified drawings to a charity art show and told me they were “illustrations for an imaginary play”, talking about one art form in the language of another in much the same way that he once asked a musician to “play like a fried egg” and, in Whately’s film, says producer Brian Eno is like “watching a fast-moving film of a flower blossoming”.

But when rehearsals began for Bowie’s musical Lazarus in 2014, life took a critical turn. You see a camera set up so that he could watch without leaving his flat across the road. He tells a select few he’s unwell and by the time he begins work on his swansong album, Blackstar, he’s six months into cancer treatment. Sombre, stately, graceful and atmospheric, the album turned out to be one of his most moving works. At one point its producer, Tony Visconti, cuts the instruments on the track Lazarus so you hear only Bowie’s vocal and breathing – “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen”. Visconti says softly, “A man on top of his game. And the saddest lyrics to hear them now.”

Bowie was clearly galvanised by his terminal illness to make one last artistic statement. He once referred to himself as “a working actor” and Blackstar and its Lazarus video seem part of an elegantly staged theatrical exit, the final curtain in a lifetime of high-impact performance.

“He was always interested in mortality,” says Whately. “His whole life was a series of cultural and artistic deaths and he must have known that what he did to his body in the 70s would catch up with him one day. His wife Iman even stopped him having fried breakfasts. There were many layers going on in his music. When he died we thought, ‘Oh, that’s what he was talking about.’ There was an ambiguity in everything he did.”

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David Bowie and wife Iman

I learnt a lot from this fascinating film, especially about Bowie’s relationship with fame, a condition he describes as like “being in a luxurious mental hospital”. He pursued celebrity in the 70s simply to acquire the resources to explore his artistic interests and then largely faded from view to focus on “what we are uncovering in life”.

I never realised he worked at such breathtaking speed or with such boundless good humour, a permanently grinning evangelist trying to persuade others to see the world the way he did.

What did Whately learn by making it? “The idea that he just speaks to outsiders is wrong,” he replies. “He speaks to everyone. Which is why there’s still a growing interest in him. And the film gives you a better understanding of him as a creator: he’s absorbed by everything in the world around him – art, theatre, news, politics. And that he means something different to everyone. It’s impossible for anyone who likes music not to like at least one Bowie album. He went out on a very high note and this is a love letter from me to him.” 

Bowie: the Last Five Years is on Saturday at 9pm on BBC2

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Mark Ellen is the former editor of Smash Hits, Q and The Word