How do you make a documentary about a man often referred to as an alien? First, you let David Bowie tell the story himself. Endlessly adaptable, a Bowie documentary could go in several directions. The man of several careers could span a film on each phase of his life. One for Ziggy Stardust, another for his years in Germany, and yet one more for his transition into acting and painting. Surprisingly, director Brett Morgen, whose previous films include traditional documentaries Montage of Heck and Crossfire Hurricane, foregoes any narrative. The director stated in interviews before release that “Bowie cannot be defined, [only] experienced.” Accordingly, Moonage Daydream attempts to build a spiritual connection with Bowie rather than offer a grand summation of his life.
Moonage Daydream opens to a pitch-black screen with only booming vibrations to let viewers know the film began. Bowie’s voice fills the theatre with passages about the infinite nature of time. Six years past the musician’s untimely death in 2016, fans wait for the definitive Bowie film. This film is the first sanctioned by the Bowie Estate, giving Morgen unprecedented access to footage, artwork, and recordings unseen by the public. With that carte blanche, Morgen combines psychedelic imagery with unseen performances. Songs don’t play in full, marking the only real failing of the film. It’s understandable, however. With so much musical output to cover, the film would be nine hours long to detail every album Bowie made. Yet, the results are mesmerizing, especially with audio for the footage pumped through IMAX speakers. Everything heard is top-notch coming from the sound team, which includes long-time Bowie collaborator and friend Tony Visconti.
Often documentaries fail when filmmakers don’t appreciate the visual aspect of the medium, sticking to archival footage and talking head segments. Morgen demonstrates visual flair by splicing a pop of colour into Bowie’s live shows. By a pop of color, I mean the entire spectrum in kaleidoscopic fashion. Though Moonage Daydream investigates what created Bowie, the forces that made him are onscreen. Morgen incorporates footage from films (Charlie Chaplin shorts, Nosferatu, and Johnny Mnemonic) that resonate thematically within the narration. Other references like Metropolis directly inspired work on The Man Who Sold the World. Pop culture is cyclical. What inspired Bowie he then manifested into art, making it possible for a spiritual successor to pave the way again.
Described as an odyssey exploring David Bowie’s creative and musical journey, Moonage Daydream has higher aspirations, though it’s not quite a transcendent experience. It is the closest thing to experiencing a live Bowie show we have, but the cerebral element isn’t fully developed. The artist offers insights on how to live a fulfilling life, and while he’s authentic, your mileage may vary with that sentiment. The experiences available to him versus the average person are disparate. It is easy for Bowie to clear his head in Japan when struck by writer’s block, but others can’t find respite so easily. Before Bowie gets too heady, he quickly reminds audiences that he “doesn’t exist.” His identity is merely the byproduct of humanity’s collective perception. Bowie is still humble, even in passing.
Avoiding the typical rise and fall arc of most biopics allows the film to chart Bowie’s personal and philosophical growth over 50 years. Morgen mirrors the meditative state of Bowie’s career transition with the film’s pace, slowing down for contemplation. At Madison Square Garden in 1997, on the cusp of his 50th birthday, Bowie announces to the audience, “I don’t know where I am going from here, but I promise I won’t bore you.” Resonant words, indeed. Bowie was the consummate entertainer, reinventing himself whenever necessary and turning in unpredictable works. His long and multi-faceted career is a testament to his creativity and helped him transcend mere stardom to become an icon.
Given his history with performance, it only made sense that Bowie would later act. Starring in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, he expanded upon his alien persona to portray how haunting it is when we can’t get back to where we belong. He later stole Labyrinth away from everyone and made noteworthy cameos in Zoolander and (my first experience with him as an actor) The Prestige. Who better to play real-life magician Nikola Tesla than Bowie? Sadly, the film doesn’t delve much into that film, but its themes echo throughout Bowie’s career. Identity, the nature of creativity, and the cost of fame.
As long as it is (140 minutes), Moonage Daydream rarely strays from the early days of Bowie. As exciting as that era of Ziggy Stardust is, his later years are still of interest. Bowie couldn’t share his thoughts on Blackstar–he died two days after–but Morgen has an abundance of material from earlier Bowie to explain his ease with death and the state he was in to make an album like Blackstar. As exceptional as Bowie was for giving people cover to just be themselves, he was better at showing no fear.
“I put myself through everything,” Bowie says near Moonage Daydream‘s conclusion of his life and career. After Morgen finishes his film, you feel the immersion as well. Moonage Daydream plays better in a theatre, so if you get the chance, please do so. The film doesn’t give audiences a 101 course on Bowie but a representative experience worthy of the man who captivated us all for 50+ years!
Moonage Daydream opens in theatres this Friday, September 16.