2022, PG-13, 135 min. Directed by Brett Morgen.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Sept. 16, 2022
The trippily immersive Moonage Daydream may be the first midnight movie of the IMAX age. This audaciously crafted documentary about the late David Bowie, one of the most influential musician performers of the late 20th century, relies on an audiovisual sensory experience to reveal the man and his artistry, rather than the more conventional recitation of biographical fact abetted by the talking head. While loosely aligned with the chronology of his multi-decade career, the film follows a less straightforward path from cradle to grave, relying upon his disembodied voice to serve as spirit guide over the course of a 69-year lifetime. It doesn’t so much flow as envelop you in a gift of sound and vision, Bowietically speaking. At first, you may question whether this is all some elaborate head game, but gradually the creatively unorthodox approach to pay tribute to a man who gravitated toward unconventional artistry enlightens more often than it disorients.
The breadth of the film’s content is nothing short of mind-blowing, which accounts for its butt-numbing length. In officially authorizing the production, Bowie’s estate provided screenwriter/director Brett Morgen (Cobain: Montage of Heck) unprecedented access to the icon’s personal archives, including previously unreleased or unseen paintings, drawings, photos, films, videos, recordings, and journals, all of which the filmmaker generously shares in a loosely organized procession of imagery, language, and music. Add to this a seemingly endless pageant of material available from the public domain, such as clips from stage concerts, theatrical movies, television documentaries, talk show appearances, commercial advertising, stage performances, and music videos. To synthesize this wealth of ingredients into something resembling a gelled whole, Morgen (who also serves as editor) frequently inserts a barrage of quick-cut images, primarily culled from a treasure trove of movies ranging from Metropolis to The Red Shoes, to fill in the gaps like thematic spackling, though admittedly some of his choices are head-scratchers. What results can only be described as an enormous cinematic collage. No wonder it took him over five years to assemble this movie.
Some of the documentary’s chapters address strictly personal topics like Bowie’s early life in a loveless home (the exception: an adored older half-brother who acquainted him to the world of jazz and Beat poetry) and his relatively late marriage to the love of his life, Iman. The strongest sections of the film, however, are those categorized by the musical phases of his career. In the early days of his breakthrough Ziggy Stardust persona, the androgynous alien messiah who wore heavy makeup and one-legged jumpsuits, a genuinely enthused Bowie calculated to excite and titillate his besotted young fans with the tease of bisexuality and other nonconformities, while also using the same to screw with a less enamored generation of alarmed parents. In entertaining talk-show clips from this period, a coquettish Bowie half-flirts with bewildered male hosts struggling to decipher him, much to his delight. During the mid-Seventies milk-and-cocaine period in which a cocooned Bowie briefly lived in Los Angeles as he deteriorated into the Thin White Duke, the film keenly cross-references this lonely time of precarious mental health with the pre-Ziggy song "Space Oddity," about an astronaut adrift in space, and clips from Bowie’s first feature-length film released in 1976, The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which he starred as a stranded extraterrestrial who devolves into a hopeless alcoholic. As for the Eighties period in which Bowie unapologetically achieved huge commercial success, playing sold-out stadiums after the chart-topping success of the upbeat Let’s Dance album, just the sight of the Serious Moonlight superstar in an elaborate Pepsi commercial screams, “Enough said!”
Throughout Moonage Daydream (the title comes from the 1971 song that introduced Ziggy), you’re struck by the contradictions in Bowie’s life and career. Create an identity to present to the world; hide behind nothing and reveal yourself. Strive for artistic excellence; just have fun. Reject the chaos of life; accept it. At its most profound, this movie reminds you that a life well-lived is one in which change – personal, professional, artistic – is a measure of growth. And David Bowie lived one hell of a life. Like The Man once sang: Turn and face the strange.