The latest event in the elaborate build-up leading up to David Bowie’s new album took place this afternoon at Williamsburg’s Nitehawk Cinema, where the short film accompanying the title track — called ★ and pronounced “Blackstar” — was debuted to an audience of cast members, friends, fans and media.
Unsurprisingly, the film, directed by Johan Renck, is ambitious, lush and loaded with symbolism. There are abandoned astronauts, jeweled skull relics, ancient cities, ritualistic ceremonies, skeletons floating in space and humanoid scarecrows in the middle of a field. A woman with a freakishly realistic animated tail discovers a discarded spacesuit. Bowie is in the middle of it all, eyes blindfolded and replaced with buttons; later the film cuts to closeups of eyes, and his appear in the lineup, unmistakeable as ever. On the chorus he is unobscured, waving a worn leather-bound book with a black star on the cover, like some itinerant, ancient preacher. (He still looks fabulous, in case you were worried.) The overall feel is sci-fi in nature and decidedly futuristic. But it could be today; it could be 50 years ago; it could be thousands of years ago; it could be in the future.
The track plays behind, jumpy, disjointed, an uneven heartbeat to start. Bowie’s voice is even with the rest of the instrumentation and the electronic drum sound dominates. Occidental accents jump in (an oboe or clarinet sound), and then the beat evens out, becoming almost danceable. A horn skronks in the background over varied percussion, the electronic instruments fade away, and Bowie’s vocals come front and center for the next phase of the song — almost a chorus — “I’m a black star.” This section is the opposite of the first segment of the track, and is warm, soulful, straight out of Bowie’s best attempts at R&B. It will morph shapes a few more times, adding orchestral effects, a solid backbeat, and more free jazz/Arabic-flavored woodwinds and horns at the end. It’s not casual listening, because the song doesn’t remain one particular thing long enough to get comfortable with it; but it is challenging, determined, and particularly executed. It one hundred percent feels like a piece of music from David Bowie.
Director Johan Renck was present — as was producer and long-time Bowie cohort Tony Visconti, who happily yelled, “You did a fucking great job!” when Renck was introduced — and engaged in a brief Q&A session. (“Just don’t ask me what anything means,” he cautioned.) Renck related that he connected with Bowie when he reached out to ask if he’d write some original music for his series The Lost Panthers; to his utter shock, Bowie agreed, and came back later with the music for ★ and asked if Renck would like to do the video. Renck gushed about the experience: “I can honestly say he’s the most brilliant person I’ve ever met…He’s genuine, he’s curious, he’s playful, he’s smart, he’s funny, he’s truthful…” and revealed the one thing you wouldn’t expect to hear: David Bowie uses Skype. “The collaborative process is extremely open. Many times over the past months I’ve sat on Skype with David, and I’ve thought — fuck! I’m talking to David Bowie! He loves Skyping,” Renck shared.
★ will be released globally on November 20 on all digital retailer and streaming platforms. The ★ album will be released January 8, 2016 on ISO/Columbia Records in formats including digital, CD, and “a stunning die-cut vinyl LP package.”