David Bowie gets the non-traditional documentary treatment via Moonage Daydream (now available on VOD services like Amazon Prime Video), a catch-the-vibes Essence of Bowie piece of nonfiction from director Brett Morgen. You’d be silly to expect a nuts-and-bolts bio of Capt. Chameleonic Enigma anyway – especially from the director of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and The Kid Stays in the Picture, who had the blessing of the Bowie estate and access to a massive library of audio, video and other materials. The result is unconventional, hypnotic and maybe for fans only.
The Gist: First things first: Time your consumption of weed gummies accordingly. This “documentary” has no subtitles or talking heads or timelines or diagrams or formal narration or any, you know, “documentation” you’d see in documentaries without quotes around the word “documentary.” It does, however, have a mood, a feeling, a tone and an air. It opens with heady philosophical stuff and a scene on the Moon, on which a girl with a tail retrieves a gilded skull, which has what to do with Bowie? I think it’s implying that Ziggy Stardust’s remains ended up up there? As a fairweather admirer and not a hardcore fan, I can only freely interpret.
Anyway, it’s followed by a montage of images from history and popular culture (I caught a glimpse of a scene from Plan 9 from Outer Space) soundtracked by a Bowie medley. That segues into scenes outside a Bowie concert in the early ’70s, and inside, the man himself, in full Ziggy Stardust androgynous glory, performing “All the Young Dudes.” It then shifts to images of an older Bowie doing what’s perhaps best described as performance art, to TV interview footage in which he talks about the Ziggy concept being a modern “high priest” modeled after the Greek gods. His voice often narrates atop the visual collage, talking about space, time, religion, identity and art, occasionally peppered with more earthly and relatively specific stuff about his upbringing, his feelings of isolation, his interests in painting and sculpture and filmmaking, and his drive to experiment with his image, songwriting and sound.
This is pretty much how the film goes for two hours – maybe not quite enough concert footage, maybe not quite enough Bowie interview footage, and maybe too much other stuff, although I cede the point that so much of that other stuff informed Bowie’s creativity and aesthetic. An observation: Celebrity TV interviews in the ’70s were far more insightful and personal, instead of being the shameless promotional fodder of the last few decades. Case in point, an interview in which Bowie openly shares how he’s too busy making art to pursue a relationship: “Love can’t get in my way – I shelter myself from it.” Morgen’s images show and don’t tell us that the “lad from Brixton” moved to Los Angeles and then to Berlin in order to push himself creatively, and the film takes a somewhat linear tack through his life and career, although it leaves out so much. So, so much. There’s a point where we figure out that it’s 1983 on this tack, and there’s only 40 minutes of the movie left, so there’s not quite enough time to fit in all kinds of vague, but kaleidoscopically fascinating stuff about the final three decades of his life.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground comes to mind, as a slightly superior, and similarly artistically stubborn, rock-doc bio.
Performance Worth Watching: Bowie in all his forms, of course. He’s the only superstar rock figure who’s gargantuan enough in stature to survive this type of indulgent and impressionistic filmmaking – so that makes Morgen’s performance come in at a close second.
Memorable Dialogue: An offscreen interviewer talks to a hysterically weeping schoolgirl wearing Ziggy Stardust makeup outside a Bowie concert:
“Why are you so upset?”
Sex and Skin: Beyond the implied fornication of Bowie’s every move and gesture, none.
Our Take: The overall idea put forth by Moonage Daydream – almost to the point of comical repetition – is that Bowie at his peak was a restless personality intrinsically tied to his art. He “never seems to stand still,” says one TV commentator who isn’t named and isn’t particularly important because he’s not Bowie. The idea of settling down and being, I dunno, a family man? “Never got around to it,” he tells another unnamed interviewer. The way he lived informed his work; he’d move from country to country and visit others to find inspiration in the spiritual voodoo of temples and the urban bustle of cities. That’s why all the albums he made in the 1970s – whatever they are, they’re not named here or even their covers shown, because if you’re watching this film, you absolutely already know them – are so damn singular and influential.
So call this the anti-Behind the Music on Bowie. Morgen’s not interested in a thorough career retrospective, or in assembling a ripping concert film from this treasure trove of mostly unseen footage. A portrait of an artist as exceptional as Bowie demands less Wikipedia, more take-a-drug-and-dive-in – or, in lieu of being high, turning down the lights and turning up the volume and letting the film overwhelm you until it’s a sensual experience. Anyone nitpicking how Morgen fails to address Bowie’s issues with drugs or any intricacies from his personal life or this or that musical era or collaboration isn’t just missing the point, but probably facing in the wrong ideological direction. Tune yourself to this film’s wavelength, and you’ll feel the pulse of its perspicacity.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Yes, Moonage Daydream is a treat for Bowie diehards – or anyone open to an unusual rockstravaganza.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.