The late rock superstar David Bowie’s long career and discography established him as one of music’s great innovators and unique figures. In veteran director Brett Morgen’s unconventional documentary about the legendary creator, the film opens with Bowie discussing controversial German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and ideas about the disappearance of God. Bowie was fascinated by the intersection of pop culture and philosophical discourse, and even though he could articulate profound and radical ideas, he never presented himself as a philosopher.
In “Moonage Daydream,” Morgen uses fragments of Bowie’s life to illuminate his artistic journey as an incredibly versatile musician as well as an actor, writer, sculptor and painter.
Bowie’s estate granted the director unprecedented access to the star’s vast archive, so Morgen could pay homage to one of contemporary culture’s most significant musical artists. As a result, Morgen defied the traditional “music bio-doc” structure by making the film a one-of-a-kind experience rather than being another collection of talking heads and historical information. Instead, he relies on the almost overwhelming amount of colorful images, unique interview snippets and cinematically documented concerts, to channel his notion of Bowie into a new structure, and intercut it with new live material, remastered by long time Bowie producer Tony Visconti.
Instead of tracing Bowie’s life from cradle to coffin, he mainly focuses on a prime time of Bowie’s career — from 1973 to ’83 — during which this multi-media creator seemed to reinvent himself each year. Morgen’s film reveals how much Bowie needed to express himself.
The film starts off with aliens arriving on earth, based on the footage from D.A. Pennebaker’s “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” and intercuts of clips from “Metropolis,” “A Trip to the Moon” and “This Island Earth.” In archival TV interviews with Dick Cavett, Valerie Singleton and Mavis Nicholson, Bowie was compelled through his conversations to be spontaneous and playful but also serious at the same time.
Bowie was one of the first music industry figures to speak frankly about sexuality and gender — represented through gender-bending performance on stage and through TV appearances. His sincere statements sometimes were very controversial but also were eloquent, and, most importantly he at least was voicing them. As he evolved, Bowie’s creative impulses propelled him toward painting, poetry, experimental video art, and acting both on stage and screen.
Morgen noted Bowie’s distant relationship with his mother, the tragic hospitalization of his brother Terry because of schizophrenia, and his interaction with other artistic giants such as writer Jack Kerouac and jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. The director largely ignored Bowie’s private life — his marriages and the many women he interacted with — except for a brief introduction of the love of his life, Iman.
Bowie dominated the music scene for decades, and the film displays his presence as a unique artist, bold experimentalist, gender explorer. Through this film we see a complex portrait of creative restlessness.
Morgen established his career through such bio pics of artistic figures such as movie producer Robert Evans in “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” and Nirvana founder Kurt Cobain’s early artistic development as displayed in “Cobain: Montage of Heck” (2015). In “Moonage Daydream“, Morgen dispenses with a chronological narrative of his subject’s life, stepping away from it as a conventional rockumentary, but he keeps the music front and center — and all tracks are played out loud. Morgen wants us to get lost in the experience as viewed through Bowie’s eyes rather than it being a “teaching tool.”
It took four years to compile all this material and fashion it into this final product — and another 18 months for the full editing process. But given the expressive results, all his efforts were worth it in the end.
This film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8th. It opened on September 16th, in IMAX.
Grade : A