If there’s one thing we can all agree on when it comes to David Bowie, it’s that he was impossible to pin down. I mean, that was always sort of the point, wasn’t it? He was eclectic, transformative, mercurial, and of course, a fucking genius. He could appear as a meek waif on the streets and become a living god on the stage. He could blow your mind with layered, poetic lyrics or make you bop with something generic or utterly nonsensical. His music was as fluid as his sexuality, taking corporeal form just long enough to kick down the doors of convention whenever he felt like it.
But who was he, really? A traditional documentary would seek to answer that very question. The filmmakers would speak with those he knew, loved, and collaborated with over the course of his 40-plus years making music before his death in 2016 (even if he hadn’t gone, “Blackstar” would easily be considered one of his finest works). They’d assemble footage into a tight chronology that pieces together as much of his “true” identity as possible. There’d likely be a heavy focus on his most popular works, like “Changes” or his role in Labyrinth.
That would work well and good for 99.9% of musicians and artists, but not Bowie. Not the man who changed personalities like the rest of us change socks. Not the man who dared us through his music to gaze at the stars while sneakily warning us to keep ourselves grounded and fix our own world. Not him. Not Ziggy. Not the Homo Superior.
Director Brett Morgen, who has previously tackled the pillars of rock and roll with documentaries about Kurt Cobain and the Rolling Stones – as well as Jane, about Jane Goodall, whose omission from the Oscars was bullshit of the highest order – keenly understands this fact. As such, with Moonage Daydream, he doesn’t even attempt to suss out who Bowie “really” was. Instead, with the approval of Bowie’s estate and thousands of hours of unreleased footage, he simply decides to show us the man in all his glory and let us work it out for ourselves, intentionally keeping his narrative, and his subject, as untethered as possible.
I’ve mentioned this before, but for the most part I’m not a fan of archival documentaries, as there’s little in the way of actual artistic direction. They’re mostly just a progression of clips that tell a very milquetoast story about stuff that we already know. There are rare exceptions, like the Oscar-winning Amy or Apollo 11, but more often than not, I prefer documentaries with something of a clear thesis statement, expert analysis, or personal insight. In essence, I want a story instead of just a bunch of clips I could look up on YouTube.
Morgen however knows that such a conventional approach can’t work for someone like David Bowie, so instead the focus is on the flux. There is a slightly linear track for the course of the film, starting with a concert performed as Ziggy Stardust and eventually ending with a brief aside to “Blackstar,” but the timeline does jump back and forth several times, and most distinct eras are presented as a grand whole, each with their own internal wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. Interspersed throughout are paintings done by Bowie that have never been publicly displayed (in an old interview he admits to being too nervous for anyone to see this facet of his artistry), tons of performance footage, a panoply of clips from various media (everything from Buster Keaton to A Clockwork Orange), and several cutaways to a model recreation of an eclipse (if you’ve seen the film and know where this bit comes from, please tell me; I’d love to know the source).
It’s something like a stream of consciousness more than an actual narrative, filtered through the lens of the universe itself. Think of all the randomness and chaos that makes up everything we know about the cosmos, including the astronomical miracle that is your own existence. That’s the core of how Moonage Daydream presents Bowie’s life and career. He was a unique, mathematically infinitesimal convergence of circumstances in the vastness of space, and he wanted all of us to be aware of – and cherish – the fact that this applies to all of us as well.
Morgen shows us Bowie’s exploration and experimentation as a reckoning with that very chaos. It’s not so much about embracing it (like Everything Everywhere All At Once), nor is it about acquiescing or surrendering to it, but rather acknowledging it, appreciating it, and eventually learning to live with it. Finding a way to coexist with that which cannot be controlled brings peace to Bowie (evidenced by a progression of sound bites that seemingly contradict one another but instead belie a clarity and wisdom developed with age), because once you accept that anything can happen, you realize that you can make anything happen.
It was amazing to watch the few solid glimpses we got into Bowie’s psyche. On stage and in music, he was a lodestar, an icon, a cult of personality who never settled on a personality. In contrast, I was fascinated by interview clips with the likes of Dick Cavett and others where he’s clearly shy, soft-spoken, nervous, and a bit giggly. He can command a stadium of adoring fans to his whims but he also admits he’s terrible at one-on-one social conversations. He lived in a legitimate fear that he would succumb to mental illness like his brother while being an outlet for millions of people to cope with their own trauma. All these conflicting and incompatible forces came together in the form of this one balance breaker of a person, and we in the audience see that in glorious bits and pieces, as if a synapse fires in one part of Bowie’s life and another tangentially relevant one follows years in the future or the past.
And within all this, in true Bowie fashion, the very idea of fan service is eschewed. There’s a brief aside to his world tour in the early 80s and the more simplistic, poppy tunes like “Let’s Dance,” but it is noticeable how little the “mainstream” parts of Bowie’s career gets shown. “Starman” and “Changes” only play over the credits, while other hits like “Fame,” “China Girl,” “Golden Years,” “Suffragette City,” “Young Americans,” and “Under Pressure” are omitted entirely. There’s literally only one brief clip from Labyrinth (about four seconds). His marriage to Iman doesn’t even bear mentioning until the final 15 minutes despite it lasting 24 years until his death, and his first wife Angie Barnett and his children aren’t mentioned at all.
I think this happens for two main reasons. One, David Bowie was so prolific in his work and his life that it would be literally impossible to include everything. If you even tried it would put the runtime of Berlin Alexanderplatz to shame. That’s also kind of why the space motif works so well from a production standpoint in addition to the thematic one, because there are probably as many interesting things to know about Bowie as there are stars in the sky, and lifetimes could be spent mapping it all out.
Two, the whole point of this film – at least I think this is the point – is to celebrate how someone like Bowie could normalize being weird. As such, you kind of have to keep the focus away from anything already considered “normal.” In this case, it’s the more commercial successes of Bowie’s life. Sure, there are token mentions of his less independent moments, including clips of a Pepsi commercial he did with Tina Turner and a sound bite where he decries the idea that “poverty equals purity” in an artist. But these vignettes come long after he became an all-time great, and are presented as a suggestion that being a “superstar” was the height of mundanity for him, so the less said about them the better. Their inclusion is more in service to this idea that even a god must at times descend to the mortal plane.
From a production standpoint, Morgen makes some pretty spectacular choices, to the point where this is only the second time I’d recommend forking over the extra money to see a documentary in IMAX. The sound design literally surrounds you, creating an immersive experience as a cacophony of experimental melodies and harmonies transport you into the three-dimensional puzzle of Bowie’s mind. Blowing up old footage without upping the resolution ends up enhancing the visual portfolio because the pixilation takes on an otherworldly feel, seeming even more realistic in its artificiality. Just on a thematic level it makes sense, as Bowie was larger than life, so a mere standard film screen should never be expected to contain him properly.
This film is another of those rare exceptions to the rule when it comes to archival documentaries. Amy worked because Amy Winehouse’s life and career were tragically cut short, so any footage, even without context, granted audiences insight into the person she was and what her loss meant. For Apollo 11, the narrative was so strictly constructed because it was meant to be an almost interactive experience where the audience could almost feel like they were on that historic space flight 50 years after the fact. Here, with Moonage Daydream, Brett Morgen decided to take us inside the mind of one of music’s modern geniuses by showing us the maelstrom of thought, creativity, insecurity, and sheer chance taking residence inside that very mind. It’s a date with chaos that never devolves into madness, showing us the beauty of limitless potential within the life of a limited person.
Bowie would have it no other way.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite David Bowie song? How many current performers owe their entire careers to him? Let me know!