Iprobably impossible to do definitive documentary for a figure like David Bowie, which was so much bigger and larger than life. The beauty of Brett Morgen’s velvet and paint collage Moonage Daydream is that it does not attempt to be definitive. Instead, it’s a slide through Bowie’s career, barely complete but somehow capturing both the spirit and genius of this most enigmatic and alluring of artists. Morgen – whose films include the Kurt Cobain documentary Cobain: Montage of Heck and The child remains in the picture, for high-ranking studio executive Robert Evans — painted this sprawling mural using only archival material, including clips from TV talk show interviews and plenty of concert footage. The effect is a kind of drifting, merry-go-round; there are no talking heads of today to tear us away from that dream.
Morgen seems to realize that from the time Bowie burst onto the scene in the early 1970s—his first two albums, released in 1967 and 1969, were no hits—to the time he died in 2016. , there were almost too many David Bowies to count. Morgen begins with that of the artist Ziggy Stardust’s face, circa early 1970s: he was a thin man with short strawberry red hair, eyes rimmed with eyeliner. The concert footage that Morgen selects from this era is electrifying: Bowie is part butterfly, part untouchable flamboyant god, a creature of wondrous beauty whose remoteness is part of his appeal. The crowd of English kids who come to his concerts can’t get enough. There’s footage of them rushing into one of Bowie’s shows wearing the best version of cool clothes they can muster – you can tell most of them don’t have a lot of money, but they already know the bling is from big deal. Many have disheveled their hair and painted their faces with lightning bolts. A girl sitting outside the stage door tearfully explains that she waited a long time for just one look, but she believes she missed him.
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What’s fascinating about this early part of the film is how devoted these young people are to a figure who kept a safe distance from them even as he gave his all during performances. Much is said in the first section of the Moonage Daydream. Part of it is a voice-over by Bowie himself, taken from various sources – the effect is haunting and poignant. Morgen also features archive clips of Bowie appearing on talk shows both in the States and in the UK and, in his shy, awkward way, explaining his ideas about gender fluidity long before there was an accepted term for it. A UK talk show host commented disparagingly on his outfit, a gorgeously tailored suit with extreme shoulders worn with sparkly socks and towering platform sandals. You immediately know who is the hero and who is the enemy in this scenario, and it’s easy to see why, his magnificent gifts as a writer and performer aside, Bowie’s cautious charm would win over young people immediately. He told them, in his appearance and in his actions as well as in his actual words, that they did not have to let anyone else define who they should be, how they should feel about the opposite sex, or their own, that they could to create themselves and inhabit it comfortably – perhaps easier said than done, then as now, but how could you no love an artist who encouraged you to this freedom? These early parts of the film are the most impactful, capturing just how extraordinary Bowie was for his time. No wonder these children, in their ragged clothes, adored him.
David Bowie seen in ‘Moonage Daydream’
From there, Morgen traces Bowie’s evolution not only as an artist, but as a person who eventually grew to feel more comfortable sharing pieces of himself with the public. It features clips from Bowie films – among them The Man Who Fell to EarthMerry Christmas Mr Lawrence, and The hunger— as well as excerpts from interviews in which Bowie explains how and why certain albums came about. In the mid-to-late 1970s, exhausted and in need of recharging, he went to Berlin. There he tried to make sense of the East-West divide, but could not capture his ideas in sound. He called on his friend Brian Eno, which resulted in what was called the Berlin Trilogy, three albums (Low, heroesand A lodger), released between 1977 and 1979, born in part from experimentation with ambient music, liberating something in Bowie’s work. Shortly thereafter, he spent some time traveling the world, which seemed to give him new optimism. The result was the 1983 album To dance, considered a sell-out by many critics of the day, although footage from the era is included in the Moonage Daydream suggests that this period of exuberance and joy was an important transition for Bowie. Interview clips from this time show him completely at ease with himself, ready to answer any serious question as honestly as possible – a far cry from the shy, enigmatic Bowie of the early 1970s. They also point the way to Bowie meeting and instantly falling in love with supermodel Iman, to whom he was married until his death. The images Morgen includes here—of the two laughing and embracing on a beach or dancing together in a careless moment—are a kind of balm. In the early ’90s, if you wanted true happiness for any rock star, you wanted it for David Bowie.
However Moonage Daydream is more of a scrapbook than a conventional portrait, you still get the sense that Morgen was trying to gather as much information as possible. Perhaps that’s why the film feels a little bloated; a little careful trimming wouldn’t hurt. But the point remains: Bowie was too big and too great for any of us to fully understand, and his loss still hurts. if nothing else Moonage Daydream captures him as we’d like to remember him: dazzling, sensitive, full of questions—and ultimately, probably as happy as a truly brilliant man can be.
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