On 7 January 2016, the day before the release of Blackstar, the video for ‘Lazarus’ premiered. It was just three days before Bowie’s death, and ensured that the song, along with the album’s title track, received much attention when the news broke.
It was directed by Johan Renck, who had also helmed the shoot for the ‘Blackstar’ video. Renck used an edited version of the song, which reduced the running time from 6:22 to 4:05.
The video was shot in November 2015 in Brooklyn’s Bednark Studio Inc, where Bowie’s appearances in the ‘Blackstar’ video were also shot.
Rest In Peace, Starman. We were fortunate enough to art direct, fabricate, install and finish the set of David Bowie’s last music video, Lazarus, released in 2016. We move forward to 2017, inspired and thankful and ready to create. “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring” -DB
Although the song was written for the Lazarus play, the setting and performances in the video brought new meaning to the song, with clear symbolism to Bowie’s own mortality.
I just thought of it as the Biblical tale of Lazarus rising from the bed. In hindsight, he obviously saw it as the tale of a person in his last nights…
So British, the wit, like a guilt thing, making sure it’s not coming across as too serious or pretentious – and yet that enhances the humanity of it.
Bowie’s energy was often low during the shoot, and needed to take frequent breaks. Despite this he appeared happy, arriving each day looking suave in a suit and fedora, and was reportedly friendly with the small crew.
Renck was aware of Bowie’s cancer. Unbeknown to the director, however, Bowie had recently been told that his cancer was terminal, and that treatment was to be ceased.
Just before we shot the ‘Lazarus’ video, David had gotten word from his doctors that we’re terminating treatment, there’s nothing we can do, this is the end. So he knew that, when we were shooting that video. I obviously didn’t know.
The Complete David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg
The video for ‘Lazarus’ is set in an austere, undecorated ward room with stark white tiles on the walls and floor. There is little colour in the room aside from the pale pink blanket covering the bed. The only other furniture is a wooden wardrobe, chair and desk, and a discarded shoe and a box of possessions lie underneath the bed.
There are three characters. Bowie, in his Button Eyes incarnation, lies in what can be viewed as his deathbed – potentially a nod to the wrecked and writhing torso laid out on a hospital gurney for the cover of Lodger.
Button Eyes rises and falls from the bed as if reaching closer to heaven. To give the appearance of levitation, the bed was suspended from the ceiling at a 90° angle. Robert Fox, producer of the Lazarus musical, attended the shoot and was overwhelmed by Bowie’s tenacity and resilience.
I couldn’t believe it. The bed had to be hung from the ceiling so that David could stand in it, to give the impression that he was rising from the bed. I thought, ‘what the..! He’s about to be 69, he’s really unwell; what’s he doing putting himself through this?’ But that’s what he did.
The second figure, a jittery, dark haired woman, is seen emerging from the closet, under the bed, beneath the desk, and finally at the door reaching out to Button Eyes. She was played by Elke Luyten, who had previously appeared in the ‘Blackstar’ video.
The third character in the video is played by Bowie, wearing a reproduction of the striped two-piece costume he had worn in Los Angeles during a 1974 photoshoot by Steve Schapiro, for which Bowie sketched the Kabbalah Tree of Life diagram on a floor.
When we did our shoot in ’74, he went into the dressing room and he painted these diagonal white stripes on his outfit and painted his toes white. And when we saw the ‘Lazarus’ video, he had repeated that outfit for the first time. He was in a very spiritual mood in ’74 and this sort of continued that whole spiritual sense that David had.
Cool Hunting, April 2016
This figure is possibly a return of one of the ‘Blackstar’ video’s characters – the mocking “Great I Am” trickster who exhorts others to “just go with me”. This time he dances camply, grins and jeers as he sings of “looking for your ass”. This persona is later seen seated at the wooden desk, scribbling thoughts in a ragged notebook, and finally retreating into the wardrobe.
This final act saw this third figure retreating into the wardrobe. “The closet, or coffin, if you will,” as Renck put it. The move was not planned, but was a last minute change suggested during the shoot.
Somebody on set said, ‘You should end the video by disappearing into the closet.’ And I saw David sort of think about that for a second. Then a big smile came up on his face. And he said something like, ‘Yeah, that will keep them all guessing, won’t it?’
The video for ‘Lazarus’ was shot in widescreen, yet Renck opted to release it with a square 1:1 aspect ratio. This gave an effect of intimacy and, with thick black bars on either side, a nod to a sense of the darkness bookending each person’s life.
Shortly after Bowie’s passing, Renck published the widescreen cut on his website, although it was removed shortly afterwards.
The ‘Lazarus’ video was nominated for three MTV Video Music awards in 2016: Best Direction, Best Cinematography and Best Editing.
I understand some of the lyrics better now, and that makes me love it even more and take even more pride in taking part on Bowie’s last album – not in a cocky way. It’s a heavy thing. It seems like he knew it would be his last now, and it’s just wild. The references to his own mortality, the symbolism in the ‘Lazarus’ video – it’s all spelled out. And he went out in a ball of flames. It’s been pretty emotional for me, but the way this all unfolded is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. None of it’s set in yet.
Premier Guitar, 15 January 2016