David Bowie movie Moonage Daydream marries documentary with immersive collage, conjuring the feel of a concert

Death comes for us all, even – as it did in the dark days of early 2016 – the seemingly immortal David Bowie, whose earthly departure felt both sudden and, in a sense, long overdue: the starman had finally pulled the ultimate artistic reinvention, disappearing into the cosmos from whence he came.

In the years since, the shapeshifting icon has encountered a fate worse than death: enshrinement in the pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll myth; the very thing that the restless artist – the actor – likely would have disdained.

The music endures, of course, but amid the endless greatest hits repackagings and box sets, the image, so often reduced to a cartoon lighting bolt and flaming mullet, now adorns coffee mugs, adult colouring books, and licensed T-shirts lining the racks at chain stores. Crack, baby, crack.

Moonage Daydream, the first officially sanctioned Bowie documentary since his passing, seems designed to push the star back into the realm of art, wonder, restless experimentation.

A mullet-hired David Bowie wearing a patterned jumpsuit and playing guitar is duplicated with a colourful kaleidoscopic effect.
“It’s not a biographical film at all, it’s really a meditation or a celebration of [Bowie’s] musical journey,” Morgen told ABC Melbourne.(Supplied: Universal)

While broadly encompassing the spectacular arc of his career, its two-and-a-half hours of sound and vision largely eschews biographical detail and dispenses, at least on the surface, with the trappings of the traditional rock documentary, offering instead an immersive collage narrated, in spectral voice over, by Bowie himself.

Director Brett Morgen, a kind of self-styled rockstar filmmaker whose résumé boasts the pretty good Kurt Cobain film Montage of Heck, was given the keys to the Bowie kingdom by the late singer’s estate, and reportedly took five years (what a surprise!) in combing thousands of hours of footage, much of it – or so we’re promised – unseen, or at least radically restored from the archive.

What he’s assembled is less a definitive account of a life than an impressionistic portrait, one that the press kit touts as an ”experiential cinematic odyssey”, a montage-heavy trip through Bowie’s music, art, and writing threaded together by reflections on his artistic process.

David Bowie shirtless and with a mullet sings into a microphone lit in orange against a blue and green lit stage.
Morgen trawled through around 5 million assets supplied by Bowie’s estate to make the film, including interviews, performance footage, stills, and artworks.(Supplied: Universal)

Held against the standard of the conventional music documentary, Moonage Daydream is formally and sonically ambitious, favouring temporal echoes, psychic connections and visual motifs over linear narrative – it circles and loops back across Bowie’s career, allowing various incarnations of the singer to commune with each other, floating in a most peculiar way.

The film’s first half, roughly dedicated to Bowie’s glam rock reign in the early 70s, is its most exhilarating, capturing the singer’s visual transformation with an electric eye. Though much of the footage is familiar, Morgen has accessed the original camera masters and, in some cases, alternate angles and outtakes, to breathe new life into clips from Life on Mars? and Ziggy Stardust’s swan song that burst with a ravishing sense of immediacy.

Working with Bowie’s longtime producer Tony Visconti and sound mixer Paul Massey, who’ve reassembled (and in some instances remixed) many of Bowie’s tracks from their original stems, Morgen has cranked up the sound to pleasingly ear-shattering levels, meaning the film plays like a concert – which makes sense when you realise that the filmmaker has inked a multi-picture deal to make more music films for the IMAX format (the best way to see this, incidentally, if you can).

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Play Audio. Duration: 32 minutes 31 seconds

Listen: Brett Morgen on Bowie

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