The ‘Blackstar’ video was published on 19 November 2015, the day the song went on sale digitally.
It was directed by Johan Renck, the Swedish-born filmmaker whom David Bowie had already worked with, adapting ‘Blackstar’ for the theme for the Sky Atlantic series The Last Panthers.
At the very beginning, he sent me drawings which were great and he kind of left it at that. I took a lot of those drawings and I went with them. Sometimes it’s interesting to work from a completely white paper, but many times if the artist is interested and he has ideas and they’re good, I love working with that because it’s a great starting point.
We had a drawing of [Button Eyes], which was pretty amazing. He had a drawing of a woman kneeling by a man in a spacesuit and he had a few other drawings so they’re clearly represented in the video.
CBC Music, 23 November 2015
The video was screened on 19 November at the Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn, with Renck and Tony Visconti in attendance. After the screening Renck took part in an audience Q&A, in which he reveals some details about the video. This included that the juddering dancer were inspired by classic Popeye cartoons.
Both David and I were very interested in dance so we worked with a choreographer and David had this idea. He 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.
I love that stuff. I find it so intense and it almost looks like they’re trapped in these movement patterns.
CBC Music, 23 November 2015
If the lyrics of ‘Blackstar’ were designed to keep listeners guessing for years to come, the endlessly fascinating video added numerous extra layers, clues and conundrums. And yet, although there are undoubtedly references to trace and connections to make, it is perhaps better enjoyed as an intriguing and complex work of art, the meaning of which is not meant to be decoded.
When we spoke about when this video is gonna come out and I told him that there’s gonna be interviews and shit like that, I told him, ‘Be aware I’m not doing any of this to get any of your fucking glory or sheen on me, I don’t care about that. I’m doing it to support your music.’ And he said ‘I know you wont do that. The one thing I think is important is to not go into any second guessing or analyzing what these images mean, because they’re between you and me. People are going to go head over heels to try to break it down and figure it down across the spectrum, and there’s no point in even engaging that.’ And I said I totally agree. I’ve never been one to talk analytically about a music video or whatever I do. Because this is what I made, it comes from somewhere. You make of it whatever the fuck you want, I’m not going to push any of my ideas onto you.
David Bowie’s sequences were filmed at Brooklyn’s Bednark Studio Inc, where the ‘Lazarus’ video were also shot.
Bowie plays three different roles in the ‘Blackstar’ video: the tormented and bandaged Button Eyes; a priest figure holding a tattered book bearing the ‘Blackstar’ logo; and a charismatic trickster – “the great I am” – who plays the central Blackstar role.
The character there, we named him Button Eyes, I was there when that character was born. It’s not like, ‘Hmm, what can we do that’s cool and different, that people will be interested in?’ He sent me drawings. He just said, ‘I want a mask with buttons for eyes.’
What I didn’t do is ask ‘what is he?’ Because I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in what comes out of him, and interested in Button Eyes. So in the video there are clearly two characters—there’s Button Eyes, who’s introverted, a sort of tormented blind guy. And then we have this other guy who’s a flamboyant trickster in the middle of it, selling us the message in the other part of the song.
The video opens with a solar eclipse, and an astronaut lying prone on a barren landscape. A woman with a tail approaches and opens the astronaut’s helmet, revealing a jewel-encrusted skull. The skull is taken to a town where it is used in a ritual, surrounded by a circle of women.
Renck initially refused to explain the astronaut’s identity, but later told the BBC documentary Bowie: The Last Five Years: “to me, it was 100% Major Tom.” The space suit’s smiley face motif was also seen in Bowie’s son Duncan Jones’ 2009 film Moon.
I’ve worked with a lot of artists, a lot of actors, a lot of people. But very few are that true. He’s the least pretentious guy I’ve ever met, but at the same time his ideas are deep and founded and interesting, you know? We can talk about the tail on the woman in a million ways. All I can say is, and I don’t even know if I’m allowed to share it. But the tail was David’s thing. All he said was, ‘I want a tail on the woman.’ And I said, ‘yeah, yeah, I like that.’ And he said, ‘yeah, it’s kind of sexual.’ And that’s it!
The video was choreographed by Kira Alker and Elke Luyten of Zus Performance, both of whom also cast the dancers. The company’s website states: “The choreography for ‘Blackstar’ was born out of their previous work called Death Drive, taking physical compulsion as an impetus for dance.”
Luyten appeared in the ‘Blackstar’ video as one of the jittering dancers, and again as the girl under the bed in the ‘Lazarus’ video. The other performers were Elisa Lasowski (who played the woman with the tail), Evvie Allison, Anna Azrieli, Ezra Azrieli Holzman, Rachel Berman, David Bowie, Kay Ottinger, Lydia Chrisman, Sebastian Ghita, Sara Gibbons, Stephanie Gibson, Elisa Lasowski, Mickey Mahar, Lindsay Dietz Marchant, Bogdan Olaru, Emi Oshima, Angeli Sion, Cameran Surles, David Thompson, and Diana Vladu.
Sara Gibbons was invited to take part in September 2015, but wasn’t informed who it was for. After she and the other dancers signed non-disclosure agreements, Bowie emerged to meet them during rehearsals.
I was just sort of in shock. I was just totally not expecting it to be anybody I knew, let alone anybody that famous. I’m sure that I was sort of babbling when I was shaking his hand.
wabi.tv, 26 January 2016
During the video’s middle section, three more figures are revealed: writhing scarecrows crucified in a field. In the final part, the skull is given to the circle of women, and a ghillie-suited monster approaches the scarecrows. As the monster appears to launch an attack, Bowie’s Button Eyes convulses and falters, lightning flashes above the village, and the screen cuts to black.
The ‘Blackstar’ video won the award for Best Art Direction at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards.