David Bowie: The Last Five Years previewed

Filmmaker Francis Whatley tells us about his new David Bowie doc, which airs on BBC Two this Saturday, January 7

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When was this new film film mooted?
Shortly after he died, the BBC looked to me to see what I could do. I said I didn’t think a rushed job was a good idea. I thought a more considered documentary about the last years would make sense. It took time to make sure that we were sensitively approaching the subject. What I wanted to do was to make something like the first film, which is very much based in the music rater than his personal life. I said, other broadcasters, other people, could make the documentary about her personal life, but it wasn’t going to be me who did that. But I think because the first film had gone down so very well, I was lucky that everyone I approached without exception said yes. I think they liked the first film and I think they knew I was going to treat the music seriously.

So what happened next?
I was on another project – about Judi Dench – so I could only start this in the summer. Then it was whether I do a repeat of Five Years and do Another Five Years. But then I thought of the poignancy of the last album, which I think is as good as anything he produced in the Seventies, and The Next Day, which is amazing as well, taking bits from many different eras from his career. I think he was probably writing during his nine-year hiatus. So he might write a song, then have a break, then write another song. I don’t think there’s the consistency on that album [The Next Day] that you might find on Scary Monsters or you might even find on Blackstar. Stylistically, it felt quite different, it felt quite safe. As Eno said – now I’m back, I can go and crash my plane again.


When did you shoot the interviews for the first Five Years film?
I went out in December 2011, ostensibly on a recce trip. I spoke to Tony Visconti, and Gail and Gerry and Earl. They all kept quiet. They all wrote to me on the day the record was released and said, ‘I’m so sorry, I couldn’t say anything.’ It was so bizarre, I’d heard the album before they had. When I cam to interview them, they hadn’t even heard the album. Although ‘Where Are We Now?’ was out, the album wasn’t out yet. They didn’t know what parts they’d played on what songs. We didn’t use any of those interviews, because it was very difficult. They didn’t know the material sufficiently well because the were being told, ‘This is Song A, this is Song B.’ Without a title. I think Carlos Alomar told me, with Low he had to go and buy a copy of Low before he heard it.

Was is difficult?
A lot of them knew me. It was fairly easy to get emails or numbers for the ones I didn’t know from the ones I did know. Whether it was the people behind Lazarus the stage page, the musicians on Blackstar or the musicians on The Next Day, it was all pretty easy. It’s not just about the last five years. It’s about how the last five years thematically relate to his whole career.


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