Through all his hazy cosmic jive, David Bowie was always presented as a Starman, waiting in the sky for the right moment to blow our minds. Times have caught up with the legendary Thin White Duke, and one of the signs is a stellar alignment. If the stars look different, it is because there was an unforeseen conjunction. Neon Film’s immersive documentary Moonage Daydream premiered at Cannes this week as did Showtime’s The Man Who Fell to Earth’s newest episode, entitled “Moonage Daydream.”
In the series, K. Faraday (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is the home planet help requested by Thomas Jerome Newton, the character Bowie played in Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 film. The drone protégé of the mysterious Anthean scientist suffers an existential crisis and finds inspiration through a base human instinct. Moonage Daydream documents Bowie’s career with the most human touch. It is narrated by Bowie, himself, through interviews and clips presented in multiple formats.
Bowie is best known as a musician, but has always been a multimedia player. He lent his voice to cartoons, video games, art installations, and interstellar communiques. Bowie studied and expressed himself through dance, painting, sculpture, video, audio collage, screenwriting, and began by studying mime. Moonage Daydream promises to present a full mix of the sound and vision as the newly released trailer shows.
Bowie made his movie debut, the experimental short X-rated film, The Image, in 1967. He then went on to star or be featured in dozens of classic films, as well as starring in the title role of The Elephant Man live on Broadway. He is almost as well known for acting as for his music, but never quite. Bowie’s role as Jareth in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth was upstaged by the soundtrack he wrote for it, which was the third best-selling soundtrack ever at the time.
Bowie almost did the same for The Man Who Fell to Earth. He began writing a soundtrack which he planned to follow his 1975 album Young Americans. He only finished some demos which weren’t synched to the picture. Roeg brought in John Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas. Bowie released Station to Station. When Bowie made the album Low in 1977, he sent Roeg a copy with a note that simply read, “This is what I had in mind for the film.” The demos weren’t available until the 40th anniversary release The Man Who Fell to Earth: Limited Collector’s Edition.
Bowie made music up to his death in 2016. His final album, Blackstar, scheduled to drop on his 69th birthday, came out two days before his death. Man Who Fell to Earth’s “Moonage Daydream” opens on the planet Anthea, where Faraday is leaving to complete the mission begun in the original film. As he prepares to board his craft, his wife asks him to remain, he promises to return. It is very human, but it is alien. You have to love the alien.
The former David Jones, who changed his name to Bowie in 1966 after the singing actor Davy Jones found fame as a member of the Monkees, explored alienation for the better part of his career. He won an Ivor Novello Award for the song “Space Oddity” in 1969, and was treated as such when he first hit ground.
In the trailer for Moonage Daydream, we hear the disembodied voice of Dick Cavett pondering the origins of Bowie. “Who is he? What is he? Where did he come from? Is he a creature of a foreign power? Is he a creep, is he dangerous, is he smart, dumb, nice to his parents? Real, a put-on? Crazy? Sane? Man, woman, robot?” On the musical stage, he’d been all: Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Major Tom, The Thin White Duke. The documentary does not try to define Bowie, but shows why he must be experienced. Bowie’s art is presented as a guide for how we can live our best lives. What was radical in 1971 is mainstream now. Bowie’s nonconformity offered a new norm. David Bowie was no chameleon. He never blended into the scenery.
You can watch the trailer here:
Bowie was the master of reinvention. It took British director Francis Whately three separate documentaries to explore the singer’s career: David Bowie: Five Years (2013), which covered his introduction to the public at large, David Bowie: The Last Five Years (2017), which looked at the making of Bowie’s final two records, David Bowie: Finding Fame (2019), which explored his early years.
Moonage Daydream was written, directed, edited, and produced by Brett Morgen, who made Cobain: Montage of Heck, the 2015 documentary on Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, The Kid Stays in the Picture, Say It Loud: A Celebration of Black Music in America, and Jane (2017), the Nat Geo documentary about primatologist Jane Goodall. The Bowie project took over five years to make, and is crafted for an immersive cinematic experience tailored to specific theaters. The documentary will play in IMAX theaters when it opens this fall. Morgen spent two years selecting 16mm and 35mm print footage, much of it never-before-seen, from the Bowie archive for an extensive tour through his 54-year career.
Bowie declined to license his music for Todd Haynes’ 1998 film Velvet Goldmine, which is named after one of his songs. Maybe if they’d only have given him a part. Moonage Daydream is the only film sanctioned by the Bowie Estate, which gave Morgen unfiltered access to all Bowie’s master recordings. The documentary features 40 remastered songs from Bowie’s song catalog from 1970 through 1977. The songs include “Changes,” “Starman,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “The Jean Genie,” “All The Young Dudes,” “Life on Mars,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Fame,” “Young Americans,” and “Golden Years.” Bowie’s long-time producer Tony Visconti is the music producer.
The Bowie conjunction is well timed. Even FX’s Sex Pistols series Pistol opens with footage of Bowie’s 1973 farewell concert at the Hammersmith Odeon. He said goodbye to Ziggy Stardust that night. But David Bowie has never left orbit.
The Man Who Fell to Earth airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime. Moonage Daydream is set for a September theatrical release. The film is expected to premiere on HBO and HBO Max in the spring of 2023.