by Claire Barrett / BBC
21st May 2013
‘It’s not often I get gigs like this,’ admits Francis Whately ahead of a preview screening of his David Bowie film at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
It’s an appropriate setting for what the director describes as a ‘labour of love’ – the latest manifestation of a childhood obsession, passed down by an older brother and never shaken off.
“A lot of music docs are biographies and I’m rather tired of that format” -Francis Whately
The 90-minute Five Years – which includes thrilling footage unearthed from dusty vaults and revealing interviews with some of the musician’s most reticent collaborators – hits the small screen on Saturday in what is fast becoming yet another year of Bowie.
The V&A’s David Bowie is… exhibition opened to huge critical acclaim in March and is the museum’s fastest selling event – ticket sales boosted, no doubt, by the star’s surprise release of a new single on his 66th birthday in January after more than a decade of silence.
The BBC Two documentary will happily ride the wave of curiosity in a man who has set musical trends and inspired fashion choices for more than 40 years, but it’s been on the director’s agenda since the late nineties, when he first encountered his hero in a professional capacity.
Whately had been given his first job as a director, tasked with making ten two-minute Omnibus shorts on modern British sculpture and was advised to seek help from those he admired.
An optimistic email was duly despatched to David Bowie. ‘I knew he was an art collector,’ the director tells Ariel, ‘but I was astonished when he called me a week later. We talked for some time about sculpture and British art. He said he wanted to talk about a piece called Sacred.’
This turned out to be an 8ft slab of stone in the middle of a wood in Wiltshire – part of a private collection that Bowie had visited with wife Iman.
‘I went with a cameraman to film it from every conceivable angle,’ explains Whately. ‘I wondered what I was going to do with it.’
He needn’t have fretted. Bowie contributed a ‘slightly odd, rather magical’ reflection on the idea of Sacred, set to his own Ian Fish track.
Ziggy in Asda
Later, Bowie narrated Whately’s 2001 Omnibus Special on painter Stanley Spencer and he featured in the director’s art rock episode of the Seven Ages of Rock.
Whately even took Andrew Marr to the site of the Dunstable Civic Hall – now an Asda supermarket – during the first series of History of Modern Britain. ‘It was where Bowie performed as Ziggy Stardust for the first time. Marr did a piece about Ziggy playing guitar between the washing powder and organic potatoes.’
“Even though I’m a fan I didn’t want to make hagiography. I wanted it to come from the horse’s mouth.” -Francis Whately
But he hankered after doing a longer form programme, just about the singer, and got the nod from the BBC Two commissioners last summer.
The film is structured around five pivotal years in Bowie’s career. ‘A lot of music docs are biographies and I’m rather tired of that format,’ says Whately. ‘Plus Bowie’s career has been so extensive, even 90 minutes couldn’t do it justice.’
Spoilt for choice, he selected those years when Bowie’s music was at its most potent and avant-garde. They’re bookended by 1971-72, when he made the remarkable transition from long-haired folkie to spiky-topped rock god, and 1982-83, when a beefy, blonde Bowie swapped cult status for stadium star.
‘I loved all the stuff he did in the nineties and this century, but the work he did in the 70s and early 80s was hugely influential,’ Whately considers.
Acres of transcripts
But if the years provide the junctures, Bowie himself provides the skeleton for the documentary. The production team sifted through acres and acres of transcripts from interviews the musician had given around the world.
‘He was at the heart and we built up from there,’ explains Whately. ‘Even though I’m a fan I didn’t want to make hagiography. I wanted it to come from the horse’s mouth.
‘He’s talked about most things in his past,’ he continues, adding that it was a case of piecing together snippets on a subject from multiple sources to create the narrative.
Contributors were then asked to add their take on Bowie’s reflections.
‘The whitest man I’d ever seen’
So guitarist/arranger Carlos Alomar remembers his introduction to ‘the whitest man I’d ever seen’ in 1974 New York as Bowie sought to reinvent himself as a soul man, while Nic Roeg recalls casting his Man Who Fell to Earth leading man courtesy of the BBC’s Cracked Actor.
“To find unseen archive material of someone of the stature of David Bowie at this stage would be remarkable. To find the wealth of material [archivist Miriam Walsh] found is a miracle”, Francis Whately
‘Every single person I asked said yes,’ says Whately – even Brian Eno, who was top of his wish list.
‘He’s very reluctant to talk about the past,’ the programme maker says of the former Roxy Music man who collaborated with Bowie on his Berlin album trilogy. ‘He thinks life is too short to dwell on what he did in the seventies.’
Another coup was getting guitarist Robert Fripp to speak on the theme – something he hasn’t done before. Whately credits researcher Sarah Kerr who ‘cajoled him and humoured him and made him feel so comfortable’.
He chose not to approach the likes of Angie Bowie (‘she has a very particular take’) or Bowie’s loyal personal assistant Corinne Schwab (‘the secrets are locked away with her’). ‘His personal life is fascinating to some, but I was interested in the music,’ explains Whately, who was ‘excited and shocked in equal measure’ by the Aladdin Sane cover as a boy.
David and Luther
But it is the previously undiscovered footage – some of it grainy, some of it black and white, some of it amateurish – rooted out by archivist Miriam Walsh, that will have the fans salivating. It was found in private collections, in the vaults of French and German broadcasters and wrongly catalogued in BBC archives.
‘To find unseen archive material of someone of the stature of David Bowie at this stage would be remarkable. To find the wealth of material she’s found is a miracle,’ believes Whately.
It includes Life on Mars promo outtakes (the mute images skilfully synced up to sound by editor Ged Murphy); Angie Bowie screaming at the fledgling Ziggy Stardust as though he was a star when only one man and his dog had turned out to see him; and Bowie in creative flow as he guides his backing singers (including Luther Vandross) through the Young American sessions.
‘I was ecstatic when I first saw that,’ Whately gushes about the latter. ‘That’s as good as you ever get.’
The director – who was too young for a Ziggy haircut but paid his dues at gigs by artists Bowie influenced, like the Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees – hopes his hero, who provided ‘no editorial help or hindrance’, likes Five Years.
‘I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t,’ he muses. ‘But I didn’t make it to please him or anyone else.
‘Many will think we haven’t got the years right,’ he concedes. ‘Well, they’re welcome to make their own film.’