Moonage Daydream Traces the Life and Career of David Bowie

Itt’s probably impossible to make the definitive documentary about a figure like David Bowie, who was so much larger and grander than life. The beauty of Brett Morgen’s velvet-and-facepaint collage Moonage Daydream is that it doesn’t try to be definitive. Instead, it’s a glide through Bowie’s career, hardly complete yet somehow capturing both the spirit and the genius of this most enigmatic and alluring artist. Morgen—whose films include the Kurt Cobain documentary Cobain: The Montage of HeckAnd The Kid stays in the Photo about high-flying studio exec Robert Evans—has painted this sprawling mural using only archival material, including clips from television talk-show interviews and lots of concert footage. It’s a sort of swoony, merry go-round swirl effect. There are no modern-day talk-show hosts to interrupt this dream.

Morgen seems to recognize that, from the moment Bowie splashed onto the scene in the early 1970s—his first two albums, released in 1967 and 1969, were not hits—to the moment he died in 2016, there were almost too many David Bowies to count. Morgen begins with the artist’s Ziggy Stardust persona, circa the early ’70s: he was a slender reed of a man with a choppy strawberry-red haircut, eyes rimmed with stark eyeliner. Morgen selects concert footage from this period that is extraordinary. Bowie is part butterfly and part untouchable, glitter-god, an amazing creature of stunning beauty, which is part his charm. The crowd of English kids who turn out for his concerts can’t get enough. There’s footage of them streaming into one of Bowie’s shows, dressed in the best version of cool clothes they can muster—you can tell most of them don’t have much money, but they already know that swagger counts for a lot. Many of them have dyed their faces lightning bolts, and teased their hair. A girl sitting outside the stage door tearfully explains that she’s been waiting for a long time just for a glimpse, but she believes she’s missed him.

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What’s fascinating about this early section of the film is how devoted these young people are to a figure who held himself safely away from them, even as he gave his all during performances. There’s a lot of talking in the first section of Moonage Daydream. Some of it is voiceover narration from Bowie himself, culled from various sources—the effect is ghostly and touching. Morgen includes clips from archival Bowie appearances on American and British talk shows. He also explains his views about gender fluidity in a shy and awkward manner, well before it was a common term. The outfit, which featured a stunningly tailored suit and high-heeled platform sandals, was criticized by a U.K. talk-show host. You know right away who’s the hero and who’s the enemy in this scenario, and it’s easy to see why, his glorious gifts as a writer and performer aside, Bowie’s guarded charm would win young people over immediately. He told them, in his appearance and actions as well as actual words, that they didn’t have to let anyone else define who they should be, how they should feel about the opposite sex or their own, that they could create a self and inhabit it comfortably—perhaps easier said than done, then as today, but how could you It is not Do you love the freedom that a performer offers? The film’s first sections are most moving, and they capture how exceptional Bowie was in his day. These kids loved Bowie in all of their rough and ready clothes.

David Bowie seen in 'Moonage Daydream' (Neon)

David Bowie seen in ‘Moonage Daydream’


From there, Morgen traces Bowie’s evolution not just as an artist, but as a person who ultimately grew to feel more comfortable sharing bits of himself with the public. He includes clips from Bowie’s films—among them Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence: The Man Who Stood on EarthAnd Hunger—as well as snippets of interviews in which Bowie explains how and why certain albums came about. After being exhausted, and needing to recharge, Bowie went to Berlin mid-late 70s. There, he tried to make sense of the East-West divide, but couldn’t capture his ideas in sound. Brian Eno became his friend, and the result was what would be known as The Berlin Trilogy.Low, HeroesPlease see the following: Lodger) released between 1977 and 1979, born partly of experimentation with ambient music, freeing something in Bowie’s work. Soon after, he traveled the world and found a renewed optimism. The 1983 album was his result. Let’s Dance,Many critics considered it a selling out, but the footage was from that era. Moonage DaydreamBowie may have made this transition from joy and exuberance to joy. The interview clips from this time show him fully at ease with himself, ready to answer any earnest question as honestly as possible—a far cry from the shy, cryptic Bowie of the early 1970s. These clips also show the Bowie who fell for the model Iman and was happily married to her until his passing. The images Morgen includes here—of the two laughing and wrapped in each other’s arms on a beach, or dancing together in an unguarded moment—are a kind of balm. David Bowie was the only rock star who could bring you true happiness in the 1990s.

Thought Moonage DaydreamAlthough it is clearly a scrapbook, rather than a traditional portrait, one still gets the impression that Morgen tried to include as many details as possible. Maybe that’s why the movie feels slightly bloated; a little careful trimming wouldn’t have hurt. However, the fact remains: Bowie was just too huge and amazing for anyone to comprehend, and it still hurts. Perhaps this is all that’s important. Moonage Daydream captures him as we’d like to remember him: dazzling, sensitive, full of questions—and in the end, as happy, probably, as a truly brilliant person can ever be.

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