Moonage Daydream Review – David Bowie is Given an Uplifting and Life Affirming Tribute in Brett Morgen’s Documentary

No matter how many adjectives one applies to David Bowie there will never be a single descriptor that can encompass him. Genius, icon, iconoclast, chameleon, polymath, enigma, innovator – the man was an artist in the purest form, he was also more than often the most intelligent man in any room. To attempt to capture the life of such a force as Bowie has eluded many filmmakers. Todd Haynes gave us a Citizen Kane inspired fictional portrait of Bowie in Velvet Goldmine a film that was originally slated to be a straight biopic until Bowie refused to co-operate. The deeply misguided Stardust by Gabriel Range was such a tepid misfire that it is still mindboggling that it saw any manner of release.

Award winning documentary maker Brett Morgen (Cobain: Montage of Heck) is the first person who has been given permission by Bowie’s estate to use his image and music. Morgen, himself quite the polymath, acts as director, writer, editor, and producer on Moonage Daydream and clearly understands that there is no sufficient manner to encompass Bowie’s fifty plus year career. Instead of using a linear structure, Morgen presents us with a collage of images that evoke Bowie’s passions as well as previously unseen concert footage (remastered by frequent Bowie collaborator, Tony Visconti), in addition to many interviews Bowie gave over the years.

It’s difficult to describe the immersive experience that is Moonage Daydream because at 140 minutes we are presented with fragments of a life that at times inform and at others elide. Morgen favours a maximalist approach at times which can be almost overwhelming; the opening scene is a bricolage of animation by Stephen Nadelman, scenes from Johan Reneck’s ‘Blackstar’ video which pumps to the remixed version of ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ set in a swirling cosmos and then dropping us on stage with Ziggy Stardust. The result is dazzling and reminds us of the sheer expansiveness of Bowie’s talents.

Thankfully Morgen doesn’t keep that pace throughout the entire film. There are sections which are slow and meditative. Cameras tracking Bowie through foreign cities, moments where he sits in quiet reflection. Accompanying those moments are many frank interviews Bowie gave over the years. He didn’t shy away from difficult subjects such as his lack of parental affection, or that he desperately needed to stop being Davey Jones from Brixton (while still needing to be the human inside). As the interviews progress you get the sense that Bowie is telling his truth at any given time. He’s frank and uncompromising. Telling a talk show host in the early 1970s about his bisexuality would have been a risky move for any artist, but for Bowie it became a core part of his stage persona as well as who he was as a man. The enormous cultural shift that Bowie and Glam Rock helped usher in at the period cannot be understated.

Just as Bowie was a deeply literate man Moonage Daydream demands a certain cultural literacy on behalf of the viewer. Images of authors ranging from Nietzsche, Freud, Baldwin, Zora Neale Huston,  Aleister Crowley and Burroughs flash onto the screen. Film references from Kenneth Anger, Buñuel, Lang, Browning, Murnau, Keaton, and Kubrick swirl around the intimate footage of Bowie and provide backdrops to his voice-overs.

The film also utilises Bowie’s own acting career. When Bowie is talking about his half-brother, Terry who introduced him to music and literature that changed his life, Morgen interweaves Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicholas Roeg’s 1975 film The Man Who Fell to Earth. As Bowie discusses Terry’s eventual life-long hospitalisation for schizophrenia and his own fears for his sanity Morgen lets Newton be the visual cue for Bowie’s struggle with addiction and allows the character to be a metaphor for the intense loneliness Bowie felt in the mid-seventies where he refused to settle in one place and actively avoided romantic love (Bowie’s relationship with Angie exists only in a couple of photographs that flash by, no mention of his son Duncan is made).

Yet for all his protestations of requiring solitude Bowie never denied his need for an audience. The astonishing concert footage shows him moving through his various stage personas, including The Thin White Duke, and the frenzy that his appearances produced in the audience. Short interviews with fans contemporaneous to any of Bowie’s eras prove that he was more than a musician to many, he was a life inspiration.

Until he met and married Iman, Bowie lived a peripatetic life, bouncing from one country to another. His time in Berlin with Eno is especially interesting as it gives an insight into the process that created some of his greatest works. His need to continually cut new ground is framed as almost obsessive. There are sections where he uses the Dadaist method (later employed by Burroughs) of writing his lyrics and cutting them up to create unexpected frisson.

Bowie’s immense talent as a visual artist is also showcased. His works which seem inspired by artists as diverse as Basquiat (who he knew, and incidentally played Warhol in the biopic of the artist) and Otto Dix. It took many years for Bowie to become comfortable enough to show his visual art which included sculpture. For many their introduction to it will have been the album artwork for ‘Outside.’

Over the course of the film we see Bowie usher in new eras. From his ground-breaking ‘Ashes to Ashes’ film clip from ‘Scary Monsters’ (also the second of his Major Tom Trilogy which started with his first hit ‘Space Oddity’) to his revived commercial success with ‘Let’s Dance.’ Morgen subtly shows that Bowie wasn’t beyond taking the commercial coin by including a Pepsi ad he did with Tina Turner.

Morgen allows the audience to see Bowie grow and age, and with that growth Bowie produces new wisdom. Over the years he’s had to learn to know himself and that journey has been difficult for one who traded in being a chameleon. Intercut with Bowie’s self-reflection again are scenes from his film work. He appears as his characters in Just a Giglio, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Labyrinth, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and most pertinently when he is talking about ageing his role in Tony Scott’s The Hunger.

Morgen’s work is nothing short of miraculous and a treat for any Bowie fan, but it is also aware of its limitations. It avoids a lot of the darkness in Bowie’s life and certainly leaves out his brief flirtation with fascistic imagery. So much of that can be found elsewhere and Morgen isn’t interested in giving us anything but a love letter to a profoundly fascinating man who insisted that life is a gift that we must live. “It doesn’t matter how long we are here for,” Bowie’s voice tells us ‘it’s what we do with our time that matters.”

A being that could have been made by stardust returns to the cosmos with his death in 2016. Bowie never talked about his last album ‘Blackstar’ because he died of cancer two days after its release. Morgen allows Major Tom his final outing as he includes a desaturated version of the ‘Lazarus’ clip (mentioned above). A man of outstanding talent who was truly sui generis is given an uplifting and life-affirming tribute in Morgen’s documentary. It is hoped that the film will gain cult status and be continually shown in repertory theatres, because the immersive nature means that the audience will want to participate in Bowie’s life journey. Who could resist singing ‘Starman’ as the credits roll?

Director: Brett Morgen

Featuring: Davie Bowie

Writer: Brett Morgen

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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