‘Blackstar’ was released as the lead single from Bowie’s twenty-fifth and final studio album of the same name on 19 November 2015.
This music video for ‘Blackstar’ is a surreal ten-minute short film directed by Johan Renck (the director of The Last Panthers, the show for which the song was composed). It depicts a woman with a tail discovering a dead astronaut and taking his jewel-encrusted skull to an ancient, otherworldly town. The astronaut’s bones float toward an eclipse, while a circle of women perform a ritual with the skull in the town’s centre.
Shot in September 2015, the filmmaking process was highly collaborative, with Bowie making many suggestions and sending Renck sketches of ideas he wanted incorporated. While both men agreed to leave the video open to interpretation (Renck refused to confirm or deny that the astronaut in the video was Major Tom), Renck has offered several details regarding its meaning. It was Bowie who requested that the woman have a tail, his only explanation being “it’s kind of sexual”. Renck has speculated that Bowie may have been contemplating his own mortality and relevance to history while developing the video, but said that the crucified scarecrows were not intended as a messianic symbol. Renck has also stated that Bowie portrays three distinct characters in the video: the introverted, tormented, blind “Button Eyes”; the “flamboyant trickster” in the song’s middle section; and the “priest guy” holding the book embossed with the “★” symbol. Saxophonist Donny McCaslin said that Bowie had told him the video’s “solitary candle” referred to ISIS but a spokesperson for Bowie denied that the song was about the Middle East situation.
The choreography, notably that of the three dancers featured in an attic sequence, was drawn from other media, including Max Fleischer’s Popeye the Sailor cartoons. “[Bowie] sent me this old Popeye clip on YouTube and said, ‘Look at these guys.’ When a character is not active, when they’re inactive in these cartoons, they’re sort of created by these two or three frames that are loops so it looks like they’re just standing there, wobbling. It’s typical in those days of animation and stop-motion, you would do that to create life in something that was inactive. So we wanted to see if we could do something like this in the form of dance, we had to do that.” The female dancer in the attic sequence also performs a signature movement from the ‘Fashion’ music video.
In a recent interview, Johan Renck expanded on how he came to work with Bowie.
“I wanted a hero of mine to write the music for The Last Panthers,” he explained when asked how he and the singer started working together. “David Bowie was my youth icon.” Fully aware it was a long shot, he contacted the artist and to his surprise Bowie agreed to come on board.
No doubt Renck’s reputation played a big part in this. The director’s credits include episodes of Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, music videos for stars such as Beyoncé and Madonna, and award-winning commercials for brands such as Nike and H&M.
While Renck’s original idea was for Bowie to write the theme tune for Sky TV’s diamond heist drama The Last Panthers, which the Swede directed, the two quickly found “weird common creative ground” and ended up collaborating on what turned out to be Bowie’s very last videos.
The music Bowie delivered for The Last Panthers was “dark, brooding and beautifully sentimental”, a perfect match for what Renck describes as his style of “quintessentially Swedish dark melancholy”. It wasn’t long after this that the – admittedly smitten – director ended up at the helm of Lazarus and the 10-minute Blackstar video.
“There was a lively exchange of ideas and Bowie had many thoughts which ended up in the finished video – he is very much an explorer of ideas and a collaborative person by nature. He is a genius, a brilliant man with an exploring mind and a clear idea of the look and feel he is trying to achieve.”
The intensely creative period resulted in the poignantly surreal Blackstar video (the first song released from the album of the same name) and the captivating, brutally honest Lazarus, now interpreted as Bowie’s heartfelt parting gift to his dedicated fans.
Blackstar was shot in New York and Bucharest, and part of the success is due to the brilliant work delivered by production designer Jan Houllevigue who works on all Renck’s projects. “I may not have the same DP but my production designer never changes. I tend to work with the same people regardless of the genre.”
Renck made a name for himself as a prolific music video director for the industry’s biggest names, which also include Kylie Minogue, Robbie Williams and British rock band New Order. But working with David Bowie was different. “To be honest,” says Renck, “I did not consider Blackstar a music video as such. It is nothing like the videos I have made before.”
When looking at the future, a change can be felt. “I am engaged in TV and movies now and feel I have completed the music-video-making chapter in my life. I have done what I could do with regards to that genre.”
“I come from Sweden where everything has a sense of darkish mood and melancholy, and this seems to be what I am drawn to in TV and film work.”