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‘David Bowie: The Last Five Years’ review: Poignant, must-see viewing

"David Bowie: The Last Five Years," debuts Monday, Jan. 8 on HBO. Credit: HBO / Jimmy King

THE DOCUMENTARY “David Bowie: The Last Five Years”

WHEN | WHERE Monday at 8 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT’S ABOUT When David Bowie died in January 2016, few outside his family knew he had been diagnosed with liver cancer roughly 18 months earlier. For fans who had followed his dizzying career of constant self-inventions — from the subversive sex-god Ziggy Stardust to the mainstream arena-rocker of the 1980s — Bowie was not just iconic but positively mythical. “He never seemed real or unreal,” the music critic Chuck Klosterman wrote of him, “which I unconsciously associate with immortality.” Francis Whately’s new documentary looks at Bowie’s final burst of creative work before his death.

MY SAY This is a poignant companion piece to Whately’s 2013 documentary “David Bowie: Five Years,” which zeroed in on the rocker’s key artistic turning points during the 1970s and early ’80s. While that movie vibrated with the energy of a young Bowie at his sexiest and freakiest — orange hair, blue eye shadow, pupils dilated from round-the-clock cocaine — this film can’t help but feel more contemplative. It’s a portrait of the artist as an older man, calmly facing death even while searching for the next stage in his creative evolution.

After a 2004 heart attack on stage in Germany and a long dormant period, Bowie returned to the studio in 2011 to record “The Next Day,” carefully putting in standard workdays that ended promptly at 6 p.m. — a marked change from his drug-fueled, 24/7 sessions of old. The result, a ruminative but ambitious rock album, received rapturous reviews and seemed to herald the return of a music legend. In 2015, however, as Bowie began work on his stage musical, “Lazarus,” and a new album, “Blackstar,” he was undergoing treatment for cancer.

As in the previous film, Whately digs deep into the music, interviewing Bowie’s longtime producer Tony Visconti and such new collaborators as drummer Zack Alford and jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin. (Whately often stages the musicians in a studio to re-create Bowie’s songs, step by step, without him.) He gives us a peek at several rejected titles and covers for “The Next Day.” Whately also draws clear connections — though he’s far from the first to do so — between Bowie’s illness and the themes of death that marked his final songs. The most chilling moment comes when Visconti isolates Bowie’s vocals for “Lazarus,” revealing his strained breath and depth of feeling.

BOTTOM LINE “The Last Five Years” will be a must for even casual Bowie fans, who are most likely still reeling from their idol’s absence. It captures the ever-changing artist in his most surprising incarnation yet: a mortal man.

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