‘Moonage Daydream’ celebrates David Bowie and his many ch-ch-ch-ch changes
Morgen has made rock ‘n’ roll documentaries: “Crossfire Hurricane” (2012), about the Rolling Stones, and “Cobain: Montage of Heck” (2015), about the leader of Nirvana. Morgen made a documentary with an unusual and distinctive approach: “Chicago 10” (2007), on the chicago seven trial, is lively. He has made documentaries about unusual and distinctive people, including the highly entertaining ‘The Kid Stays in the Picture’ (2002), about film producer Robert Evans, and the excellent ‘Jane’ (2017), about the primatologist Jane Goodall.
A director experienced with rock ‘n’ roll, unusual and distinctive approaches, and unusual and distinctive individuals: that’s a well-prepared director for David Bowie.
“Moonage Daydream” plays in theaters, including several with IMAX. You might expect a nature documentary to be screened in IMAX, but not a rock ‘n’ roll documentary. Morgen’s immersive, sometimes convulsive visual approach justifies the format. It is a cinema that is anything but chaste. Intentionally overpowering, “Moonage Daydream” is indulgent and overproduced – which suits its subject matter. Bowie fans should consider seeing him in IMAX, though civilians might find that a bit too much.
Immersion takes many forms. Documentary is almost all Bowie, pretty much all the time. There are no narrator or talking head interviews. Other than interviewers on vintage television appearances, a few fans, and a phrase or two from his mother, only Bowie is heard.
Fans are important. Even by rock star standards, there is a tremendous, sometimes even unsettling, sense of connection between Bowie and the audience. The category they could assign it to is . . . god? Don’t laugh – Bowie wouldn’t. “I wanted to define the messiah/rock star archetype,” we hear. “That’s all I wanted to do.” Rarely has the word “all” carried such a charge of meaning or aspiration.
“Moonage Daydream” primarily covers the period from the early 70s through 1983’s Serious Moonlight Tour. The Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane phases predominate: Bowie as the glam-androgynous transgressor. Add this to the category list. But the documentary is by no means chronological. Neither locations nor dates are given for the interviews or concert footage, and there are lots and lots of concert footage. The film unfolds in an impressionistic and associative manner.
“Moonlight Daydream” has some surprises to offer. A pompous interviewer, surprised by Bowie’s wedge heels, asks what the shoes might mean. “They are shoe shoes, silly,” an amused Bowie berates him. Long before fedoras became a hipster fetish, it seems he had a thing for them. Bowie does a Buster Keaton impersonation. He and Tina Turner do a commercial for Pepsi. In Indonesia, he listens with visible pleasure to a gamelan performance. Morgen likes to show Bowie on a trip, the one time the lack of description is annoying.
Excerpts from several of Bowie’s film appearances are unidentified (it’s hard to imagine anyone better for the lead role in “The Man Who Fell to Earth”). Easier to place is his Broadway turn, in “The Elephant Man.” Also unidentified are clips from various non-Bowie films, included as cultural markers: the original ‘Nosferatu’, ‘Metropolis’, ‘The Red Shoes’, ‘The Seventh Seal’, ‘2001’. Their presence indicates how seriously Morgen takes Bowie, as does his opening of the documentary with a quote from the famous rock ‘n’ roll animal Friedrich Nietzsche.
The closest thing to a timeline are Bowie’s ever-changing outfits and hairstyles. Morgen wants to put viewers in the moment, even — no, mostly — when that moment took place half a century ago. He also wants to put viewers in the presence of his subject. The camera cooperates a lot. Eventually, Bowie would marry a model, Iman. She is momentarily spotted, nearly two hours into the film. Supermodel could have been a Bowie category too: that scarecrow physique, those fine features, the withered gaze. (In all fairness, he had a wonderful smile, though that’s very rarely seen here.) Part of the package was also that loop in his voice, never far from a growl. Truly, in his neat and restrained weirdness, Bowie could have been the illegitimate son of a Bond villain. No, that one is not considered a category.
The last song heard on the soundtrack is, fittingly, “Changes.” Stick around after it’s over. There’s one last piece of Bowie audio, and it’s worth hearing. No less wisely, Morgen gave him the last word.
Written and directed by Brett Morgen. In the cinemas of Boston, in the suburbs. 134 minutes. PG-13 (some sexual images/nudity, brief coarse language, smoking).
Mark Feeney can be contacted at [email protected]