Francis Whately, director of David Bowie: The Last Five Years

How Bowie’s Biggest Fan Befriended Him and Became His Documentarian

Jan 08, 2018 Web Exclusive
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Though throngs of fans have long fantasized about befriending David Bowie, Francis Whately actually made it happen. And he did so by merely writing the rock icon a letter.

Whately, whose new documentary about the late chameleonic musician David Bowie: The Last Five Years airs will be available on HBO Go on January 8th, began the correspondence on a lark as part of a work assignment. He worked at the BBC’s Newsnight current affairs program about 18 years back, and was tasked with making two minute segments about the arts. His editor told Whately to secure celebrity guests for the segment, and when he complained about not knowing how to do so the editor suggested simply writing letter to his heroes. Whately never really expected his invitation to reach Bowie, let alone have it accepted, and when the musician called his office to accept he was astonished. The segment they worked on went well and the pair kept in touch over the years. Whately’s career as a documentarian grew and in 2013 he had an opportunity to make a film about his hero’s 1970’s heyday called David Bowie: Five Years. Now he’s unveiling a sequel called David Bowie: The Last Five Years, about the star’s twilight years which include the release of acclaimed LP’s like The Next Day and Blackstar, along with the New York musical Lazarus. Ahead of the new documentary’s Stateside airing on HBO (it originally aired in England on the BBC a few months back) Whately tells us about becoming his hero’s friend and silver screen biographer.  

Kyle Mullin [Under the Radar]: There’s a Youtube clip on which you recall writing David Bowie a letter on a lark, never expecting to hear back from him.

Francis Whately: Yes, I worked on this big show in Britain called Newsnight, about 18 years ago. I had to make all these two minute segments about the fine arts, but also involve celebrities. I thought “Oh Lord, how am I going to do this?” And what I did was, I went to my boss “What should I do?” And he told me to write to my heroes.

David was among those I chose. And to my surprise he phoned me on my office number saying he wanted to do it. We did this segment about a piece of sculpture that he chose, a slab of stone in a wood in the countryside with the word “sacred” on it. He wrote a poem about this stone he’d visited with his wife, and read it for the segment. The sculpture was very important to him— he’d just gotten married to Iman at the time, and he was showing her a bit of England and brought her to this sculpture that he really admired.

And he let me put a track from [the 1993 LP] The Buddha of Suburbia called “Ian Fish, U.K. Heir." It went well. And from there I struck up a relationship with him and we kept in touch from that point on, and remained in touch right up to the very end before he passed away.

Were there aspects of his personality that surprised you? Or was he very much like you expected?

Well, you’re not supposed to meet your heroes now, are you? But I’m glad I got to. He was incredibly courteous and polite. At that time, in the 90’s, he would phone me quite a lot. We were interested in many of the same things, and he was writing for an art magazine at the time, and because I did a lot of art films and was very interested in contemporary art, we had quite a bit to talk about. He was very informed about those subjects. And he appeared to be very down to earth.

And I gather that your conversations focused on those topics, and steered clear of him and his fame.

Yes. We didn’t talk about music at all, in fact. Maybe a part of why the relationship continued was because I wasn’t part of the music industry, and I didn’t want anything from him. We were two pen pals, discussing books and art that we both admired.

It sounds like he craved normal friendship.
Well, I just got a sense that he was so inquisitive about the world, that anyone who might have had an insight into what was good or happening in one particular field would have been of interest to him.

I think there were probably people like me in his world all over, people who would give him insights into what was good at that time. But he was incredibly well read himself, so he knew a lot about what was going on. Having someone in a different country though was beneficial for him, because he was based in New York at that time, so I could send him TV shows the BBC had made about quirky subjects. And he loved that. He just loved it. He would just eat culture, any culture you gave him, he’d just swallow it up.

How did that friendship lead to you making the first documentary, Five Years?

I’d made a few rock history series that were shown on MTV in the US, about The Velvet Underground and that whole scene. Later I found out that the V&A [Victoria and Albert Museum]  were doing this big exhibition, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to make a film about David. By this time he had disappeared from the public gaze. After his heart attack, he retreated. So I thought this would be a very good opportunity to look back at his career via TV, as opposed to what they were doing with the exhibition, which was to amass his collection of artifacts and archive them.

I’d already had some dealings with his management. He knew what I was doing, and I carried on. We’d keep in touch but never talk about the film, it’s a very British thing where you never talk about the subject at hand [laughs]. He could’ve, at any point, said “I don’t want this guy to do this.” And I’m quite sure that anyone who was in the first film went to David first and asked if it was okay. I can only assume that he said yes, because everyone I asked said yes.

So it was a joy to make that first film, because I got to cover some of the albums  I loved through the 1970’s and early 80’s. David wrote to me straight after it came out and said he liked how it was a fractured portrait, rather than a conventional biography about him being born and going through his life chronologically. It was more contemporary in its approach.

And because of that you were able to make the newer doc, The Last Five Years?
When he passed away the BBC asked me to make another film about him. And I was reluctant to do so, because I felt I had done “the film” on David Bowie. But then, I was a huge admirer of those last two albums [The Next Day and Black Star]. And I felt like the BBC were giving me an artistic license and freedom to make a film that a fan would make. And that’s not often an opportunity you get. So I thought I’d make a film about those last two albums. And the BBC bought the idea, with the stipulation that I had to work in some of his better known works from the 70’s and 80’s as well.

How do you feel the two films differ?
With the first film I said: look at David Bowie, look at how he keeps changing, isn’t that fascinating? But for the second film I thought that there was more to this story than meets the eye. And actually what’s more amazing about David Bowie is not how much he changes, but how much he stays the same. In those last two albums and the stage play, he revisits themes and concepts that he’d touched on throughout his career. So I used those albums as springboards back into his back catalogue.

In the new film Bowie mentions that some of those consistent themes include alienation and celebrity, right?

Exactly. Spirituality, alienation, and fame was a big one for him too. His attitude toward it was so interesting, how he hungered for it in the beginning but then found it quite tiresome. So on a song like “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” from The Next Day, he talks about how absurd fame is, despite having desired it at one time. It was an interesting essay on what fame meant in the twenty-first century. And he knew the fame game better than most, and he knew how to play it better than most, in that he released the “Where Are We Know?” single out of the blue, before releasing the album. That’s something that many artists have since copied, not doing any pre-publicity but instead just letting something drop. It’s another fascinating aspect of David Bowie, and his understanding of celebrity culture and how we consume culture nowadays.

Can you tell us about how the themes of Bowie’s work spoke to you as a young fan getting into his music for the first time?

I titled the first film Five Years and David’s song of the same name [from the 1972 LP The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars] meant a lot to me as a teenager. It seemed like a good essay on America, and an apocalyptic future for the world, and all the rest of it. And I thought at the time: “This guy is a poet.” So I was keen to get that song into the second film as well. We have rare footage of him performing it back in the 70’s, and although it’s amazing footage it was recorded in a bad old format. So it’s not as clear as some of the other images, but it was great to see him performing back then. A lot of that music really resonated with me. And it was wonderful to hear that stuff again in the context of his career, rather than just hearing bleeding chunks on the radio.

In fact The Last Five Years uses quite a bit of never before seen footage. Which footage stood out the most, or moved you the most?

Some of the black and white footage of David in his dressing room, or of him singing “Lady Stardust.” There’s also a scene of David with Damien Hirst, and it’s a wonderful moment of David’s awareness of the fame game, with another huge celebrity, and his understanding that everything he says will be recorded and discussed, and interpreted for years to come. And I think that shows his understanding of PR and publicity now as it stands.

I also liked, in terms of the archives, the footage of him in the Roundhouse playing with [producer Tony Visconti] and their early band called The Hype [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hype_(David_Bowie_band)] which was arguably the first glam rock band. There they are, wearing capes and singing, in color. And it was shot beautifully. There were three songs that were filmed from that concert. And it’s never been shown before. So I have to give credit to my archive producer, a woman called Miriam Walsh who found this stuff. I was concerned that after the first documentary, for which she’d found such good stuff, that she had dredged the lake dry. But she found more stuff for this film, and did a super job. What she found was just extraordinary proto Ziggy Stardust footage. I don’ t think we make enough of it in the film, how rare that footage is and how important it is historically.

Lastly, which of David Bowie’s incarnations are your favorites?

Oh, it’s a mood thing my friend, a mood thing. But the album I consistently go back to is Scary Monsters [released in 1980]. There’s not a false not on that album. I just love it. But I also love [2002’s] Heathen. I think it’s an incredibly underrated album. There’s a lot of talk about Blackstar being an epitaph and David writing about his death. But if he’d died after Heathen people would be saying the same thing. It’s a very nostalgic album that looks back to [1971’s] Hunky Dory in many ways. It’s a very sweet and lyrical and nostalgic piece of work. “I Would Be Your Slave,” is one of the most beautiful love songs I’ve ever heard.

It’s hard, because I am a fan. There are periods I like more than others, but I’m a fan of almost all his work. Never liked “The Jean Genie,” though myself. Extraordinary. Everyone likes that song, but I’ve never liked it [laughs]

(www.hbo.com/documentaries/david-bowie-the-last-five-years)



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