Just before the midnight Cannes Film Festival premiere of David Bowie’s documentary “Moonage Daydream,” the film’s writer, director and editor, Brett Morgen, didn’t just walk the red carpet. As Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” blared from the promenade loudspeakers, Morgen danced – and pranced and pogo-ed, and flashed a cheeky mad smile, and the moment he entered the theater, the crowd, taking all this on a giant video screen, earned him an even more enthusiastic Cannes ovation than usual. Morgen had the right look for these antics. He started his career as a documentary geek, but around the time of “Montage of Heck,” his 2015 film about Kurt Cobain, he started rocking a fashionable wet mane. Tall and aggressive, he entered the Lumière like a budding rock star.
The reason I bring it up is that I think it’s relevant to the aesthetic of ‘Moonage Daydream’, which is Morgen’s third pop music documentary – but, more so than ‘Montage of Heck’ or the 2012 Rolling Stones film “Crossfire Hurricane,” it’s decidedly unconventional. The film is two hours and 20 minutes of sound and fury: a kaleidoscopic meditation on David Bowie, the rock’n’roll shape-shifting astronaut.
When it opens this fall, “Moonage Daydream” will play in IMAX theaters, and that seems fair, because it’s a movie you indulge in. It’s not just an epic music video, though at times it looks like one, as it takes the pulse of Bowie’s music like a psychedelic locomotive. We’ve seen trippy documentaries before, but Morgen seems to have created this film to be rock n roll. It’s part of his colliding image irreverence. Watching “Moonage Daydream,” there are key facts you won’t hear, and plenty of touchstones that get ignored (in the entire movie, you’ll never even see an album cover). But you get closer than expected to the cold, sexy enigma of who David Bowie really was.
One of the reasons Morgen may have chosen not to do a standard chronological biographical portrait – although the film does run Bowie’s life more or less in order – is that there were two very handsome Bowie’s documentaries over the past decade: “David Bowie: Five Years” (2013), which covered his crucial take-off phase as an androgynous chameleon demon of the early ’70s, and its counterpart, “David Bowie: The Last Five Years” (2017), made after Bowie’s death in 2016, which scrupulously covered his last period of relative experimental quietude, his marriage to Iman and the haunting creation of “Blackstar” (the album and performance) as he knowed he was dying of cancer. They were terrific films, and Morgen didn’t need to go back to that ground.
Instead, he became the first filmmaker to work in full cooperation with the Bowie estate, which gave him unprecedented access to its archives: a wealth of previously unseen performances, as well as paintings, drawings, recordings, photographs , films and rare newspapers – a total of 5 million articles in all. It amounted to the biggest David Bowie candy store an adventurous filmmaker could wish for, and Morgen used it to tell Bowie’s story in an overflowing multimedia way that dissolves many of the usual categories of our thinking about Bowie (” Look, this is the Thin White Duke now!” “Look at all the doors Ziggy Stardust opened!” “This is where he stopped heroin…”). The film lets these phases blend into each other, so we register not just the ch-ch changes but the underlying continuity.
However, “Moonage Dream” is not a hippie-dippy daydream. Bowie narrates the film, with Morgen piecing together interview clips so that Bowie essentially ruminates on who and where he was at any given time. He is a magician who is ready to reveal his tricks, and also an apocalypse-happy philosopher; describing the cultural fragmentation that set in in the 1970s, he says he embraced the idea that “everything sucks, and all suckers are wonderful”.
This fits well with Morgen’s cinema, which is a form of apocalyptic editing. It’s the pop-infused school of free association that, yes, we think of as a music video, but Morgen conjures up the most dangerous and visionary cues in the form, like “Natural Born Killers” and “The Image Book” by Godard and the 28- One minute film that started it all – “Scorpio Rising” by Kenneth Anger, one of the 10 greatest films ever made. Morgen quotes him several times, as well as other films by Anger (as well as “Metropolis” and “Ivan the Terrible” and “Triumph of the Will” and “Nosferatu” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”). He uses these totems of 20th century image-making to harness the life force – the push – they represent. Life is change, and movies (shot by shot) are changing, and David Bowie celebrated the violence and freedom of that.
The film begins, like any David Bowie documentary, with the reality blast that was Ziggy Stardust. Morgen uses incredible concert scenes – far better than the disappointingly dull footage we saw in DA Pennebaker’s 1979 documentary – to show us what a thrilled outlaw Bowie was when he landed for the first time. The alien cock hair, the burning harlequin eyes, the murderous legs, the smirk of lust – it’s not just that he rode the sexes, but he infused the riding with a rock star desire, and with music that is both melodic and volcanic. Morgen mixed the soundtrack himself, and the concert stages have a sonic power we’re not used to. Of course, we’re not just going to a documentary to experience the transcendence of “All the Young Dudes.” But that’s definitely why we’re going to see a concert film, and “Moonage Daydream” is something of a hybrid – a mind-bending jukebox doc with killer subtext.
There is a paradox in Bowie. During the years of gender transition, he upended the status quo with every look and gesture, but part of him was just having fun and knowing it. There’s a clip of him on a British talk show, in glamorous attire (and with vampire-like yellow teeth), and he looks even weirder than he did on stage with the Spiders from Mars, but he’s as sincere and polite as can be – a lamb in wolf’s clothing. He didn’t tell anyone how to be. But parading his inner self, he said: Who of us is inside is stranger than most of us would like to admit.
If you were asked how many distinct looks David Bowie sported over the course of his career, you might say 20, 30, or 40. But outside of his signature phases, he was such a chameleon-like fashion plate, and appeared in so many mediums. different, than in “Moonage Daydream”, we probably see it in a few hundred different forms. Some come out of nowhere: in 1976, when he went to Berlin to record “Low” with Brian Eno, that was his time stripped down, post-astronaut, but in the movie we see an amazing concert clip of him performing “Heroes” in the late ’70s, and he looks like a trimmed Aryan android in a collarless shirt, which doesn’t make only add to the chilling allure of the song. There’s footage of him – too – from a 1984 documentary in which we see him wandering up escalators and through Bangkok on his Serious Moonlight Tour, looking like the platinum blonde version of a film noir hero. . And there are images of him in various states of drag, as well as military duds, that only Bowie could turn into another form of drag.
It’s telling that the Berlin years are the only time Morgen slowed down the film and went semi-conventional. That’s when Bowie got off the train, and Morgen obviously considers Eno the pinnacle of cool. But given that, it would have been nice if he had shone a comparable spotlight on Nile Rogers, the Chic genius who resurrected Bowie’s career during the “Let’s Dance” era. Still, it’s fascinating to hear Bowie, over this period, acknowledging that he had become a mainstream artist in a way that wasn’t untrue.
Here’s one reason I’m glad “Moonage Daydream” is as non-traditional as it is: Morgen doesn’t have to pretend – as so many music critics do – that Bowie’s albums remained vital after the mid-’80s. With his apologies to the Tin Machine groupies, the film says, implicitly, that the essential phases of his career took place from 1969, to the release of “Space Oddity”, through the Glass Spider Tour in 1987.
A personal note: I wish Morgen had found room for “Station to Station” (1976), which I believe to be Bowie’s greatest album, even though (or perhaps because it) recorded while addicted to cocaine. But Morgen uses at least one of his most incandescent tracks, “Word on a Wing,” to counterbalance Bowie’s romance with Iman; the film sees their marriage as a work of art as surely as any of Bowie’s albums. There is a section where Bowie talks, with touching insecurity, about his paintings, talking about how he was offered several opportunities to show them which he ended up refusing. Then Morgen shows us the paintings. They are amazing.
If “Moonage Daydream” has a theme, it’s that David Bowie has never stopped evolving to remain himself. And that the evolution he was talking about was not, as we tend to think, the expression of a “modern” (or mod) sensibility. Of course, we live in a time when people can change almost anything about themselves. More than ever, our identities seem fluid, and David Bowie was the avatar. Yet in “Moonage Daydream,” the more you listen to and watch Bowie in all these different guises, the more you see only one man: not a chameleon but a researcher. The changes he went through as if he was overdoing them are the changes that life puts us all through. Life, says “Moonage Daydream”, is very much like rock ‘n’ roll. It exists in the moment, and that moment will soon be destroyed. But it’s beautiful while it lasts.