An ambitious, kaleidoscopic David Bowie documentary that’s both intoxicating and exhausting, Moonage Daydream is a glorious feast for the eyes and ears that throws everything but the kitchen sink onscreen.
I’m a fairly casual fan of David Bowie’s music, with a cursory knowledge of his many re-inventions, but I’ve always appreciated the man’s sheer otherworldly strangeness and his commitment to constant creative change (as well as his marvellous, crystal clear diction; my first memory of a Bowie song is listening to Space Oddity on a tape with English language lessons). This new movie from director Brett Morgen was touted as an immersive cinematic experience way beyond your average doco or biopic, so I was curious to check it out.
Loosely chronological, the film is constructed around Bowie’s distinct eras, from his gender-bending alien Ziggy Stardust to the Berlin Trilogy to the massive commercial success of Let’s Dance. It’s a giddy time-jumping ride, with Morgen skipping freely between the decades to deliver something like an impressionistic meditation on Bowie’s life and work as well as his spirituality, narrated by Bowie’s disembodied voice to a ghostly effect.
It’s hard not to admire the movie’s towering editing achievement and the insane amount of dedication it must have taken to sift through the millions of visual assets – previous documentaries and live shows, interviews, drawings, paintings, other feature films including silent movies, and trippy, eye-popping animated imagery. The concert footage is by far the best and most exhilarating part of the documentary, showcasing Bowie as a truly spellbinding live performer. I don’t think I’ve appreciated enough just how beautiful and expressive he was in motion before.
Initially, the effect of this frenetic audio-visual collage is dazzling, as it hurtles through the early Ziggy era with flame-haired Bowie at his most enchantingly androgynous and wearing his most outrageous costumes, intercut with the shots of hysterical screaming teenagers (remember how rock music was once young people’s music?). At around halfway mark, however, the overload of sound and vision got a tad wearing; I began to savour any extended quiet moment that didn’t come with a gazillion cuts. Say what you will about the rise-fall-rise formula of your average biopic, but there’s something to be said about slowing down and building the momentum.
There is an echo of the formula when it comes to Bowie’s 1980s commercial peak, framed by the film as a mistake since, according to Bowie, there was no growth at all during that period. I’m sure that many Labyrinth fans would be outraged by the insinuation that Bowie’s fabulous turn as Jareth the Goblin King was any kind of “mistake”.
Though I appreciated Morgen’s determination to avoid a standard documentary format, I enjoyed the few more conventional biographical moments, such as Bowie’s reflections on his childhood, his emotionally distant parents, and his fear of succumbing to a mental illness just like his adored half-brother who first introduced him to jazz and modern art. Overall the film treats Bowie’s personal life selectively: his first wife Angie goes unmentioned while the second marriage to Iman gets its own mini-section, and while there’s plenty of rock ’n’ roll, sex and drugs are edited out. As for the artistic life, the film pleasingly spends some time on Bowie’s creative forays into a variety of media outside of music, including painting and acting. His continuing zeal for life really comes through in the film.
Even if I felt a bit worn out and smacked about by Morgen’s more-is-more approach, this dynamic portrait of one of rock music’s most iconic figures was very much worth experiencing on the big screen.