Moonage Daydream Is the Ultimate Look Inside the Mind of David Bowie

Brett Morgen’s Moonage Daydream documentary presents an Immersive and intimate look at David Bowie, in intimate, surprising, and non-traditional ways.

David Bowie in Moonage Daydream
Photo: NEON

The first thing you notice while watching Brett Morgen’s Moonage Daydream is David Bowie’s teeth. He smiles a lot. The Thin White Duke, and leader of the Spiders from Mars, is known as a serious artist. Yes, he sang “chubby little loser, national joke” to Ricky Gervais on Extras; mined Bikini Bottom humor for SpongeBob SquarePants; and was certainly happy to make lots of money dancing the blues in his red shoes, but the majority of Bowie’s works, both on screen and audio, are serious studies. Towards the end of the documentary, we hear Bowie say he always thought himself an adventurer, praying for the most exciting life one could have. Morgen shows the artist enjoyed himself immensely, possibly even more than Bowie fans.

Moonage Daydream is Morgen’s third pop-music documentary, following the Rolling Stones film Crossfire Hurricane (2012), and Montage of Heck, his 2015 dive into the tragic trajectory of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. For that film, he used home recordings, drawings, and journals for an inquisitive contemplation of the inner artist. Morgen’s approach to Bowie is even more unconventional. There are no talking heads, stretches of the film play out like a concert taping, others appear in fragments and splashes of sound and vision. It is an epic long-form music video, an impressionistic telling of a life, all narrated by Bowie himself through interview clips.

The nonlinear structure organizes chaos into streams of consciousness, and dissolves categories into passing thoughts, but maintains an underlying continuity. The only time the film slows to accepted documentary format is during the Berlin era of 1976, when Bowie recorded Low with Brian Eno. The film feels personal to Morgen, who mainly wants to show how Bowie’s artistic mind worked.

Much of the artistic intimacy must be credited to music producer Tony Visconti and music editor John Warhust, who take snippets of individual instruments out of context and into a larger relevance. At one point all we hear is a bass line, it bops and pops and, coming out of the prior sonics, is at first unidentifiable. As the ears adjust, we discern one of Bowie’s most recognizable songs, only after that does Visconti add instruments. It’s almost embarrassing, considering how well-known the song is. But the clarity it takes on corresponds to the mind’s initial acceptance of a new favorite song. It’s as close to hearing the song for the first time as can be evoked.

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Another moment finds Bowie narrating over a part of his life, while Rick Wakeman’s piano backing to “Life on Mars” plays without the vocals. We can appreciate the spaces in between the notes as much as the classical runs and counterpoint of the keyboard. The film is two hours and 20 minutes long, and the soundtrack happily feels slightly longer. The music seems to have been playing before the movie started, and never stops, even as Bowie narrates, or jokes with a talk show host. Audio clues ring throughout, intricately woven into the storytelling process. It may be a wondrous IMAX experience, but it could double as a favorite record.

This is not a greatest hits package, however. Moonage Daydream includes many deep tracks, but some of the side tracks could have made the cut. Considering how much humor Morgen finds in Bowie’s work, it’s a shame the film skips the Tin Machine period, which featured two sons of the comedian Soupy Sales, who transformed their father’s comic timing into Bowie’s melodic thrash.

Certain phases of Bowie’s career get the most spotlight, notably the 1969 “Space Oddity” breakthrough, The Spiders From Mars journey, the commercial period of “Let’s Dance” (though more could have been said about his time spent with Nile Rodgers), the Glass Spider Tour in 1987, and the graceful ending of Blackstar. “Word on a Wing” is the only song to represent Station to Station (1976), but Scary Monsters (1980) asks to stay and steals the room.

If you are looking for a standard chronological biography, watch David Bowie: Five Years (2013) and David Bowie: The Last Five Years (2017), made after Bowie’s death in 2016. Hell, watch them over and over. Morgen studiously avoids material from those earlier films. Moonage Daydream fills in the space between the details, like music in the grooves of vinyl records, moving quickly through fame, reinvention, and relocation. Bowie talks about traveling to unknown places, putting himself in dangerous situations, to study the effects on the music. He hated L.A., so he moved there for two years. “If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area,” Bowie explains in the film.

We don’t get much on David Jones, the artist who became a rock star. There are very few childhood anecdotes, some pictures of him doing mime, and a visit to his childhood home. The film touches on David’s half-brother Terry Burns, who was institutionalized for schizophrenia after serving in the Royal Air Force, and committed suicide in 1985, and Bowie’s relationship with his mother. Each speaks to an artistic intelligence, rather than the family unit.

Angie, Bowie’s first wife and a storied figure, is not mentioned. Bowie’s relationship with Iman is presented as spiritual fulfillment, and their marriage a work of art. The more problematic chapters of Bowie’s life, like the filming of The Man Who Fell to Earth, are presented as quick cuts and colliding images rather than straight narration. Morgen tells problematic stories through cinematic mood, replacing controversy with frenetic editing, rather than overt discussion. He doesn’t ignore things like cocaine abuse, it just comes out nonverbally, subliminally told through the sensations of freefall rather than being strapped into a rollercoaster ride.  

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Morgen is the first filmmaker to work in full cooperation with the Bowie estate. He has toys to play with: previously unseen performances, unheard recordings, rough 35mm and 16mm film stock, experimental video art, paintings, drawings, home movie clips, photographs, journals, and Bowie’s voice. The narration comes from chatter between songs, on interviews, at sound checks. “Everything is rubbish, and all rubbish is wonderful,” Bowie says at one point in the documentary, and this is celebrated in the archival media.

Morgen skims through motion picture roles, but unearths a true buried treasure with footage of Bowie’s 1980 Broadway debut as John Merrick in The Elephant Man. It is as exciting to see, from the vantage point of a devout and hungry fan who didn’t even know it existed, as it is to witness the power and diversity of Bowie’s performance. On the other hand, a sequence of clips from a 1984 Serious Moonlight tour documentary showing Bowie riding escalators in Bangkok could have been trimmed for more interesting visual dips.

The documentary starts with Bowie’s disembodied voice discussing Friedrich Nietzsche’s assertion that God is dead, and humans must become those gods. Morgen finds deep intimacy in larger-than-life imagery. He interprets Bowie’s place in culture, and lets all his influences play out, interspersed with concert footage, in the opening collage. Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari gives way to Metropolis, which is bullied out by Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Morgen evokes Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, Nosferatu, Aleister Crowley, Georges Méliès, Disney’s Fantasia, and footage of the moon landing to show it is only a small step from Major Tom to the Spiders from Mars.

Bowie was a shape-shifter, so we become acquainted with many characters. Early in the documentary, Dick Cavett asks in an archival clip, “Who is he, what is he, where did he come from?” Similar questions are posed by interviewers Russell Harty, Valerie Singleton, and Mavis Nicholson. Bowie straddled genres, genders, fashions, and phases, making them all singularly iconic. Morgen explores the persona as a composite creation. Everything is stitched together by snippets of Bowie’s stage performances, always stellar. Forever inclusive.

The documentary pauses to make sure we understand Bowie made it okay to be off-kilter and unabashedly weird. This singular enthusiasm cemented his relationship with fans. Space Cadets reflect the artist on stage from their seats at the early Hammersmith Odeon shows, Bowie refracts them at the Earl’s Court shows. Correlating this with Beatlemania, Morgen finds a clip of Bowie vamping through “The Jean Genie,” with the opening lines of “Love Me Do.” The audience finishes the song. This is the best illustration of what the director is doing. The chords are laid out, the rhythm is throbbing, Morgen performs his version of his hero’s song. The audience member is concluding the verse.

The documentary flows like a performance but, if cut differently, may have presented another stop on a tour. Some might mistake the elastic cohesiveness for a lack of perspective, but this is Morgen’s Bowie. Edgar Wright went full-on fanboy in his documentary The Sparks Brothers. Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground indulged the band’s experimental film origins to develop the music in a photographic dark room. Moonage Daydream reflects one devotee’s devotion which is so obviously deep, it speaks for all of us, even if we would have picked different highlights. The film is immersive, elusive, and intimate, like the artist himself. It isn’t definitive, it’s demonstrative, allowing the essence of David Bowie to show what an adventure life could be.

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Moonage Daydream opens in theaters and IMAX globally on September 16.


5 out of 5