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Why We Needed the Story of David Bowie's Final Years

David Bowie

A documentary about the intensely creative period of singer's final years premieres today on HBO, which would've been his 71st birthday.

David Bowie died almost exactly two years ago. Only now does that news begin to settle in because I hadn't really considered the idea that David Bowie was mortal. He was more like the fabric of our little universe, a celestial shape shifter. In the span of his almost 50-year career, he could twist himself to mean something different to everyone - the drug fueled teen rebellion, the space invader guitar god, the bisexual art exhibit, the mainstream suit-and-tie karaoke song, the family-friendly Jim Henson goblin. Even in death, his mortality seemed debatable. His last album, Blackstar , felt precisely curated as if prophesizing his own demise was just another twist of the fabric. "Look up here. I'm in Heaven," Bowie pleads in the song, "Lazarus." "I've got scars that can't be seen."

I bought Blackstar the day it was released, which was two days after he died but it took me a year to listen to it. Listening to Bowie face death meant having to consider my own mortality and shortcomings in this life. It also meant that I would have to accept that Bowie was gone and all I had left was the phantom limb of what he meant to me, to the universe. It seems fitting that Francis Whately's documentary, David Bowie: The Last Five Years , chronicling the burst of creativity that Bowie experienced during the last five years of his life, would premiere in the UK one year after his death and now on HBO. It takes time to look past the loss of a true artist with enough clarity to fully appreciate the art.

"His passing meant a lot to me but it meant more this year, strangely," said Whately, speaking with me at HBO's offices in New York. "I suppose because I was immersed in making the film and on professional auto-pilot right after died. Whereas this year, I had to watch the film again recently and there's a scene in it where you hear the voice of Shaun Keaveny, a Radio One DJ for BBC, and he says, 'David Bowie died this morning. And it's a big deal.' Just that line that cracks me up every time because, yeah, it is a big deal. He does represent an era that is gone. There is something surprising and exciting about him that Lady Gaga, Adele, The Foo Fighters, I don't care who it is but they can't do it. Even Eminem can't shock in the same way because David Bowie and his generation had already done it. I think his passing marks a watershed in musical history and I think we're mourning that this period is gone."

The Last Five Years focuses on the three major projects of Bowie's final years before losing his battle with cancer - best-selling albums The Next Day and Blackstar , alongside his Off Broadway musical Lazarus , which starred Michael C. Hall. The film features rare archive footage and interviews with former producer and longtime Bowie spokesman, Tony Visconti, as well as several band members and collaborators. "This period of his career hadn't been explored by anybody so it was very interesting territory," said Whately. "In some ways, he seems to have worked harder in that period than at almost any other time, except the beginning of the 1970s when he was producing Ziggy Stardust, Hunky Dory and Aladdin Sane ."

What's most captivating about The Last Five Years is that even before he knew he was ill, Bowie was consciously reflecting on the past -- not being stuck in it, but as a way of moving forward. After suffering a heart attack in 2004 while on tour, Bowie disappeared from the spotlight for almost 10 years. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he reemerged in 2013 with a brand new album. Every project during the next five years of Bowie's career is an existential reflection from a man who had a brush with death and then poured all of his artistic vision into facing it head on. The Next Day shows Bowie recycling his iconic Heroes album cover, but with his face blotted out as if moving on from that time. The title song from the album "Blackstar" depicts Major Tom from "Space Oddity" finally going home. The musical Lazarus is a story about Thomas Newton, his character from the film, The Man Who Fell to Earth, coming to terms with his own death. Bowie is closing chapters of his life with each of these projects and it is beautifully illustrated in Whatley's documentary.

Because his last five years on Earth were spent creating art around the theme of death and resurrection, fans were led to believe that Bowie's great exit from this planet was meticulously curated . Blackstar was released on January 8, 2016 (his 69 th birthday). Then two days later, he was dead. But it is revealed in The Last Five Years that Bowie didn't find out that his prognosis was terminal until October 2015, after much of the Blackstar album had been written and while he was filming the video for the song, "Lazarus." "Ain't That Just Like Me?" he sings. But even if Bowie the man didn't consciously know his exact expiration date, Bowie the celestial shape-shifter had been prepping the rest of us mortals for years. I just couldn't face it until now.

The Last Five Years premieres today on HBO at 8 p.m. EST on HBOGO and HBONOW.

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Jami Smith