In a new documentary about David Bowie's life, the director for his final video "Lazarus" reveals Bowie learned his cancer was terminal during its filming

By Dave Quinn
January 07, 2017 10:38 AM

The video for David Bowie‘s last single “Lazarus” — released days before the late singer lost his 18-month battle with cancer — hauntingly referred to death and rebirth. And in a new documentary about the 69-year-old music legend, the video’s director reveals Bowie learned his cancer was terminal while filming the video.

David Bowie: The Last Five Years, which premieres on British television Saturday, covers the final years of Bowie’s life — including his 2003-4 A Reality Tour, and the making of his 25th (and final) studio album Blackstar.

Directed by Francis Whately, it’s a follow-up to the 2013 documentary David Bowie: Five Years. 

As the BBC reported in their preview of the film, “Lazarus” director Johan Renck opens up in the documentary about the making of the music video, which took place three months before Bowie’s death.

Jimmy King

Renck reportedly said he discovered after its filming that Bowie had learned he would no longer be able to treat his cancer while they were shooting.

“I found out later that the week we were shooting is when he found out that it is over…” Renck explained. “We’ll end treatment or whatever capacity that means, that his illness has won.”

Bowie is confined to a hospital bed throughout most of “Lazarus” — a strip of dirty gauze covering his eye. He appears distraught, shaking as he wrestles around in the drab bed sheets. “Look up here/ I’m in heaven,” he sings. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.”

At one point he levitates — just as a disembodied hand creeps toward him from beneath the bed frame. “This way or no way,” he sings. “You know, I’ll be free.”

Lazarus is also the name of a biblical figure that was revived after death. The term is often used to denote the restoration of life.

Despite the eerie parallels throughout, Renck maintained that the imagery was not about the singer’s illness. “To me it had to do with the biblical aspect of it, you know the man who would rise again,” he said. “It had nothing to do with him being ill.

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Bowie died on Jan. 10, 2016 — just two days after birthday, and two days after Blackstar — which features “Lazarus” — was released.

Few people knew Bowie was fighting terminal cancer. Robert Fox, a friend of Bowie’s for more than 40 years, told the Telegraph last January why it was important to the singer that his illness remain a secret.

“He wanted the minimum of fuss,” Fox explained. “He was just a private man. And I think he wanted to protect his family from the insanity there would have been. It would have impinged on [his work], his family – everyone would have been inundated at a time when he didn’t need that or want that.”

Fox served as producer of Lazarus, a play featuring many of Bowie’s songs. He said many who spent most of the last year developing and preparing Lazarus with Bowie were kept in the dark about his health.

“Nobody knew. Nobody even suggested there was anything,” Fox said. “And then we woke up on Monday morning and it was on the news. I think that’s the way he wanted it to be.

“He did it perfectly,” Fox said.