David Bowie - Five Years - A desire for more

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Back in 2013, I spoke to director and producer Francis Whately about his experience making David Bowie: Five Years – a documentary exploring key years in David Bowie’s career using a wealth of previously unseen archive film. Following the sad announcement of David Bowie's death, BBC Two are repeating the programme on Monday 11 January 2016, at 11.15pm.

How did the documentary come about?
I’ve always been a fan and having made a short film with Bowie in the late 90s, I was always keen to make something more substantial about the music.

So when the V&A approached me and said that they were doing an exhibition, I was very excited. I wanted to do something that was complementary to their show, but that was new and very different.

Icon, artist, provocateur: Watch the trail for David Bowie - Five Years

The first thing was to explore what was out there. One of the things that I really wanted to do was take away what the industry calls the voice-of-God commentary and instead let the people who were there do the talking, including Bowie himself.

So we employed a team of people who went through hours and hours of Bowie material and transcripts from radio, TV, journalist interviews, promotional material from the record labels, rushes and outtakes.

I then used the synch highlights from this trawl as a backbone to construct a narrative.

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I chose Five Years because I believe there are five key years in the 70s and early 80s where he’s changing direction pretty radically.

I fully expect and welcome absolutely everyone who watches this programme to tell me that they would have chosen other years. This is a healthy debate to have and as a fan I understand it completely!

There are loads of tracks, I would have loved to have done: Aladdin Sane, Drive-In Saturday, We Are The Dead, the list is endless. But with such a wealth of material I had to sadly be selective.

Where did the unseen footage come from?
The unseen footage comes from private collectors, archives around the world and even the BBC vaults where some of the best material had been forgotten!

Do you know why it hadn’t been seen before?
It’s difficult to know why David Bowie hadn’t been tackled as a subject, really comprehensively before.

We’ve had documentaries on Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Queen, Bob Marley, on so many major artists, and yet for some reason Bowie had been rather left out. I don’t understand why.

There have obviously been documentaries, Cracked Actor, the Alan Yentob film in 1975 for example, which was utterly brilliant but there hadn’t been anything that was a longer portrait.

And because of his absence for 10 years I think there was an appetite that’s been, extraordinarily, only partly sated by the V&A exhibition and the new album. I think there’s still a desire for more.

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Was there a goose-pimple moment for you during filming?
Yes it’s the best part of my job! I was sitting opposite people whose names I’d read on the back of albums when I was a teenager, so there was Carlos Alomar, and Earl Slick and Warren Peace.

People who were legends to me, and suddenly I was interviewing them and they were playing the music that I loved sitting opposite me and that is a huge, huge privilege.

And what was so nice is that everyone I asked to be interviewed said yes, without exception, and that’s rare.

That’s a testament to their loyalty to Bowie, actually, and the fact that he is able to time and time again surround himself by the very best people in the industry.

'There was no point doing a straightforward take on American soul… I wanted to put a spin on it'

Were there any moments in the footage where you felt you got a real insight into Bowie’s character?
When you see him in the Young Americans tour rehearsal footage in black and white interacting with Luther Vandross and Robin Clark and Ava Cherry and the rest of them, you realise what a perfectionist he is, the respect he’s held in, how much work he puts in.

Although it was what he called the plastic soul album it wasn’t him pretending, it was him celebrating that genre of music. And I think in that footage you really see him working with a group of musicians who totally respect him.

Francis Whately is the director and producer of David Bowie – Five Years.

David Bowie – Five Years is being repeated on Monday, 11 January at 11.15pm on BBC Two. It will be available to watch in BBC iPlayer for 30 days after broadcast on TV.

It was originally shown on Saturday, 25 May at 9.20pm on BBC Two.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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