“Ever since I was sixteen, I was determined to have the greatest adventure that any one person could ever have…”
From the film’s lengthy opening sequences, there’s something suitably cosmic at the heart of Brett Morgen’s David Bowie film. The uplifting tones of ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ are weaved into images of planetary alignments and swirling galaxies (as well as imagery taken from his Blackstar period, which bookends the film). Over the course of its 2+ hours running time, Moonage Daydream plays around with themes of perspective – and also invites the viewer to ponder their own place in the universe.
Despite the weighty subject matter that the film occasionally touches on, Morgen’s cinematic effort offers a visual feast which is saturated with a colourful catalogue of imagery and sound through the world of David Bowie. Culled from various interviews over many decades, Bowie provides the narration for the film, which acts as a foundation for the often-dizzying spectacle that plays out on screen. The result reveals Bowie as musician, philosopher, actor, performer, artist and writer, but always with a sense of charm and also some wit (“I was a Buddhist on Tuesday and I was into Nietzsche by Friday…”). While the film doesn’t attempt to unveil the enigma of Bowie’s musical journey, it at least manages to provide a glimpse behind the curtain.
Moonage Daydream marks the first film to be officially authorised by the Bowie estate and features previously unreleased footage from Bowie’s personal archives. In the process of making the film, Morgen was granted access to an archive of five million different items, including paintings, drawings, recordings, photographs, films, and journals. Long-time Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti was also brought onboard as the film’s music producer.
There’s something audacious about Moonage Daydream’s approach as Morgen opts to sidestep the standard documentary template. In fact, at times the film can present an overwhelming assault on the senses. The sheer amount of footage, photographs and visual ideas is delivered in a rapid-fire series of edits that can feel more like an immersive experience than watching a film (at times, the volume employed on the soundtrack can be a little too overwhelming). But this approach perhaps mirrors Bowie’s own journey where he was constantly reinventing himself in a kaleidoscope of characters and music that stood or fell on its own merits. You may not necessarily have liked every Bowie outing, but it’s almost guaranteed that something would be coming up that you did.
The film has a loose chronological thread that spends a lot of time initially on the crucial Ziggy Stardust era. Archive footage shows young fans demonstrating angsty tears, desperate to meet their idol. Bowie’s live performances here show someone who is well aware of the effect of his creation on his audience, so it offers an interesting window on the whole fandom/superstardom dynamic.
Moonage Daydream jumps around a bit after this with fragmented windows on Aladdin Sane, the Berlin period and the 80s pop glamour of Scary Monsters. There’s even a nod to Bowie’s ill-starred Never Let Me Down/Glass Spider period. Purists will likely quibble that not every era gets equal billing, but the film’s structure doesn’t lend itself to be an all-encompassing affair, instead more intent on delivering a particular vibe or atmosphere. It’s also interesting to note that Morgen’s work weaves in clips of Bowie’s film outings that could just as easily be culled from footage of his actual life.
Perhaps the key theme of the film explores Bowie’s love of life and of making the most of his time on Earth. This includes a rare look at much of his artwork, produced by a creative talent who couldn’t sit still and would draw or paint when he wasn’t producing music. This emphasis on life results in a jarring segment which delivers a cacophony of sound and vision celebrating this point. This sequence is given greater emotional power by the simple fact that we know how this particular story ends.
In essence, Moonage Daydream is a dazzling sensory experience that provides a fitting legacy to David Bowie’s complex creative life.
Moonage Daydream is available on Blu-ray and DVD. This review originally appeared in issue 5 of Blitzed