‘Moonage Daydream’ is an immersive trip, maybe a little long
Moonage Daydream is more a vibe than a narrative. Brett Morgen’s (The Kid Stays in the Picture, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck) new David Bowie documentary feels like the top-shelf version of the Immersive Van Gogh trend, a candy-colored, IMAX-sized flood of concert footage and interview snippets and bits and pieces of the countless hours of media that Bowie produced, or was centered in, over the course of his career. Much of it, the film’s notes claim, has never been seen before.
Morgen ties it all together with animated images, sometimes just splashes of color or shapes, and clips from Bowie-favorite movies, including Nosferatu and Metropolitan. It’s a trip, and the closest any of us are going to get to smoking a joint with Bowie and listening to him expound on life, the universe, and everything. It’s hard to describe, but I’ll try. (I’m quite sure some Bowie purist will drop into my DMs and tell me I got it wrong. To them I say, this is about as subjective as rock docs get, man.) Fair warning: At nearly 2.5 hours, it is quite long.
MOONAGE DAYDREAM ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Brett Morgen
Running time: 134 min
The film’s on its surest footing in its first act, built around Bowie’s construction of his Ziggy Stardust persona and the immense fandom he spawned. The soft-spoken artist handily bats away interviewers’ stagey incredulousness about his makeup and self-professed bisexuality. Moonage Daydream briefly detours into Bowie’s childhood, including the artist discussing his influential, and eventually schizophrenic, half-brother Terry Burns.
As Bowie moves beyond Ziggy, Morgen darts this way and that to capture the singer’s many career zags, his relentless curiosity and reinvention. In one clip, Bowie’s interviewed in a moving car about why he’s moved to L.A., a question he answers by comparing himself to a fly that’s fallen into the carton of milk he’s drinking. Sure!
He’s a delightful alien presence, a shrewd and sometimes baffled observer of human nature. He moves to Berlin and composes some pretty great stuff with Brian Eno. Morgen doesn’t rely exclusively on the big hits throughout, but how can you not thrill to hearing “Heroes” played at IMAX volume? He gets into painting, especially of haunted-looking former East Berliners. He’s in some movies. He plays The Elephant Man on Broadway, a performance that seems a little cringey from this distance, but was, I guess, well-reviewed. He wanders around southeast Asia, his lemon-blond hair a tell that maybe he doesn’t want to be quite as anonymous as he claims.
Mid-career, Morgen allows a rare dissenting voice in. I couldn’t tell you who it is, but their observation is that Bowie’s kinda phoning it in on his Serious Moonlight tour. Eventually we see him shilling for Pepsi with Tina Turner, which still looks pretty cool – and going for broke on his Glass Spider Tour, a critically-panned undertaking that this critic attended and will argue was a lot of fun. He forms Tin Machine, a loud and discordant band that Morgen mashes up into a “Matrix”-esque transition to the internet era. And decade after decade, he patiently sits for interviewers’ questions: Who is the real David Bowie? What does your art mean? Explain yourself! Mostly he answers in Bowie koans. “Our refusal to accept change,” he tells them, “is our biggest mistake.”
I was a little disappointed Morgen didn’t spend more time with Blackstar, the 2016 album Bowie released two days before he died. After so much discourse about the nature of life, you’d think there would be a lot of fertile material to unpack in Bowie’s creative faceoff with mortality. The director also re-uses a few clips of Bowie glamorously wandering around, which really underscores that this movie didn’t need to be quite as long as it is. Oh well. Nothing is perfect. And, as Bowie says, that’s humanity for ya. “Everything is rubbish,” he says, “and all rubbish is wonderful.”