David Bowie wrote and recorded this for the opening credits of The Last Panthers, a six-part crime thriller co-produced by UK's Sky and France's Canal+. It marks the first time Bowie has contributed original music for a movie or TV show, since he recorded "I'm Afraid Of Americans" for the 1995 film Showgirls.
Bowie wrote the track after meeting Swedish director Johan Renck, whose previous work includes Breaking Bad, during filming. "I was looking for one of the icons of my youth to write the music for the title sequence, but was presented with a god," Renck said. "His first response was precise, engaged and curious. The piece of music he laid before us embodied every aspect of our characters and the series itself - dark, brooding, beautiful and sentimental (in the best possible incarnation of this word)."
He added: "All along, the man inspired and intrigued me and as the process passed, I was overwhelmed with his generosity. I still can't fathom what actually happened."
The full, just under 10-minute track was released on November 20, 2015 as the lead single from the Blackstar album. The original version was more than 11 minutes long, but Bowie and producer Tony Visconti cut it to 9:57 after learning iTunes won't post singles that cross the 10-minute mark. "David was adamant it be the single," Visconti told Rolling Stone, "and he didn't want both an album version and a single version, since that gets confusing."
Like The Last Panthers
TV series, the bizarre and creepy video was directed by Johan Renck, whose resumé also includes music clips for Madonna ("Hung Up
"), All Saints ("Black Coffee
") and Kylie Minogue (" Love At First Sight
"I haven't done a music video in a long time," Renck told NME
, "but when Bowie asks, you'd jump at it."
This began as two completely separate songs before Bowie and Tony Visconti sewed them together.
Saxophonist Donny McCaslin said to Rolling Stone that Bowie told him the lyrics are about ISIS. Bowie's spokesperson subsequently denied that interpretation.
Johan Renck told Uncut how the song became the theme for The Last Panthers. "I showed Mr. Bowie two episodes in a rough state and he liked them," the director said. "We discussed aspects of the show; the plot, but also the currents of guilt. We talked about the dark heart of Europe, biblical aspects of human nature. I showed him a concept board of the title sequence – images laced with demons from the worlds of Bosch and Grunewald. Then he said, go - it fits. Then he played me his new song, 'Blackstar.'"
Visconti recalled to The Sun being "blown away" by Bowie's initial demo of the song. "He told us, 'There's a part two coming. I'm still writing it but it will all be the same song,'" said the producer. "This became more and more intriguing and we kind of were working in the dark but we just went with the flow."
"When you don't have the constraints of making a commercial single, you can work that way because at no point did we think this was going to be a single. I'm not sure he did either," he continued. "It ended up over 11 minutes long and we cut it down just a little bit. Then David said - not on the first day or even the first month but towards the end of the album - 'This is the first single.'"
After David Bowie died on January 10, 2016, his family revealed that he had been suffering from cancer for the last 18 months. The Blackstar album was released just two days before his death; Vicsonti called it Bowie's "parting gift" for fans.
Much of the album makes reference to Bowie's mortality. On this track, he sings:
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
"Black Star" is a medical term for a type of cancer. Since David Bowie's passing, there is a belief among some fans that the album title may be a reference to his terminal illness.
The Blackstar album topped the Billboard 200 chart, Bowie's first album to reach #1 in the United States. The English musician's previous highest-charting LP had been The Next Day which debuted and peaked at #2 in 2013.
This won for Best Art Direction (Production Designer: Jan Houllevigue) at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards, beating out videos by Beyoncé, Drake, Fergie and Adele.
At 9:57, this was the longest song ever to reach the Hot 100 until Tool's 10:22-running single "Fear Inoculum
" entered the chart dated August 17, 2019 at #93.
Blackstar was the first and only album of Bowie's career not to feature an image of the artist himself on the cover.
Visconti cautions against a too literal reading of the lyrics on the Blackstar album. "We never talked about death," the producer told Mojo. "Maybe (it came up) around The Next Day," he conceded. "I think he said that what happens is the lights just go out."
The title track plays with that metaphor - "a solitary candle," flickering between light and dark, life and death.
Visconti said the song was intentionally comic. "I thought it was very humorous," he said. "The Gregorian chanting was slightly melodramatic, and the Al Green section was hysterically funny, singing he's a black star and all that."
Bowie won posthumous Grammy Awards for Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song at the 2017 ceremony for this song. The album also won for Best Alternative Music Album.
Bowie had only won one competitive Grammy in his lifetime - best music video in 1985 for "Jazzin' For Blue Jean," plus a lifetime achievement award in 2006.
This is one of Tony Visconti's favorite David Bowie cuts. The producer explained to Mojo magazine in 2020: "David always wanted to make a jazz album, and also the incredible Donny McCaslin band are uber-modern jazz virtuosi. David took them to places that were unexpected. The band and I heard David's demo on the day we recorded the track, without previous knowledge of it. The song defies description. It goes from an Arabic theme to avant-garde freeform, to Stax R&B, and yet they are only flavors of something much deeper."