Brett Morgen's David Bowie documentary eschews formulaic approach in favour of a vibey film that captures how he made us feel
Remarkably, Moonage Daydream is the first authorised documentary ever made about David Bowie, the singer-songwriter who did more than anyone else to drag British music out of a post-Beatles depression, and who was probably as talented as any of them. What it also teaches us, in case his lyrics don’t already make it clear, is that Bowie was also a very, very clever man. Not just booksmart and well-read on politics and philosophy – he, quite wisely, placed the modern pop star in the place of a religious icon in a godless world – but Bowie was very canny, too.
A compilation of previously unseen performances and archival footage of some of Bowie’s wisest words, Moonage Daydream is a clinically effective case in favour of its subject’s overall smartness. When he describes moving to LA, despite resenting the place in order to “learn things” about himself, that seems like an entirely reasonable decision. When he moves from there to West Berlin, its polar opposite, to “learn more,” you might be tempted to book flight tickets the second you leave the theatre.
What a cinematic experience this is. Those formerly unseen performance clips, handed by the Bowie Estate to editor-writer-director Brett Morgen (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, The Kid Stays in the Picture), have been gloriously remastered by Ziggy’s own music producer Tony Visconti and Bohemian Rhapsody sound engineer Paul Massey. Yet Morgen uses this footage of Bowie performing a handful of his greatest hits at various gigs over the years rather sparingly, considering how easy (and satisfying) it might’ve been to stuff the film with them.
That's because the filmmaker is less interested in showing us the Bowie we already know. Moonage Daydream isn’t fixated on Bowie the musician, and certainly not Bowie the songwriter. If there’s a word to describe the Ziggy who comes across in Moonage Daydream, it’s probably “labourer.” An impossibly prolific artist who released 17 albums by the time he turned 33, Bowie’s incredible work ethic is something we might not be so familiar with. I certainly wasn’t.
Bowie the compromiser is another unexpected side that comes across in Morgan’s film. When asked in the early-1980s if his “Let’s Dance” persona is more arena-friendly than the spikiness of Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke, Bowie tellingly explains: “I’ve never begrudged an artist for finding a larger audience.” Yet there’s a nervousness, too. Bowie was fiercely protective of his paintings, halting numerous museum exhibitions shortly before they were set to begin. Most productive while in Berlin, Bowie loved depicting lonely Germans and Turks stranded from family members on the other side of the Wall. Morgen has been given these, too, and they're wonderful to see.
If you come to Moonage Daydream looking for new insights to Bowie’s personal life, relationships or even his sexuality, you won’t find them. There are no talking heads telling salacious stories. Bowie’s marriage to Iman is all but skimmed over. His two children are not mentioned. In almost two and a half hours, what Morgen finds is a Brixton-born misfit who never got along with his mum and never quite got over his big half-brother’s institutionalisation with schizophrenia. That’s all much less important, however, than the personas Bowie chooses to take on in order to probe these personal depths. This is not an exercise in drawing back the curtain. It’s an attempt to look into its stitching.
You’d be forgiven for expecting fresh gossip from a Morgen documentary, though. The brilliant Montage of Heck certainly showed Cobain as much less than an angel, and Godfather producer Robert Evans in The Kid Stays in the Picture doesn’t necessarily come across as the genius he thought he was. But Bowie’s global treasure status and death in 2016 of cancer perhaps prompt a more charitable perspective than Morgen has taken elsewhere. Frankly, he seems more of a stand-up guy than Morgan’s other subjects, and definitely knew more about his identity than anybody else. Bowie’s cleverness essentially stops anybody being able to claim they have new insights into him. If you think you have something original to say, you can be pretty confident Bowie himself already talked to Dick Cavett about it.
Well, that’s a defence mechanism of its own. Bowie’s innate nervousness, a focus for Morgen, is something even fans might not know about. But it’s there in his lyrics. No one could write “Life on Mars” unless they’d experienced some existential disaffection of their own, or “Changes” if they’d never been a misunderstood teenager.
There’s a moment near the start of Begin Again, John Carney’s underrated 2013 musical rom-com starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, in which struggling record producer Dan tells Gretta that authenticity in music is gone. He says of Bob Dylan: “That’s the most cultivated artist you could think of! His hair? His sunglasses? He changes his look every decade.” No one was better at self-cultivation than David Bowie, who remains something of a personal enigma behind the dozen or so characters he hid himself behind. Moonage Daydream doesn’t shine much new light on the man himself, but it’s a joyous, fittingly eccentric distillation of the art he blessed us with.
Moonage Daydream was screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2022. It is released in UK cinemas on 16 September.Where to watch