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.
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.
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).
Moonage Daydream can’t quite sustain that initial rapture, though. The spell is broken once Morgen runs into a more linear post-70s narrative, as though responding to Bowie’s own creative stasis as he recalibrated to an 80s pop landscape he’d help define – what Deborah Elizabeth Finn once called his “frustrated messianism”.
Turns out it’s thematically easy to map the rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust, but Bowie’s many slippery identities that followed – Crowley-esque magician, Teutonic sad boy, Goblin King – prove tougher to parse, unmooring the film’s cohesion.
The result is a kind of paradoxical exhaustion – reels of fantastic footage and peerless music rendered in pummeling, effects-heavy montages that dazzle but eventually overwhelm, wanting for some rhythmic variation (Morgen, bless, also has one volume setting: 11). It’s both too much Bowie – words I never thought I’d type – and somehow not enough.
More wearying, in that sense, is the narrative through line that lurks beneath the film’s flashy exterior. For all its much-vaunted experimentalism, Moonage Daydream cleaves to a very straightforward, even dad-rock assessment of Bowie’s career, one that privileges his early success over a more imaginative exploration of his supposed fallow era. (Just try telling any kid raised on Labyrinth, and Bowie’s gender-rupturing appearance in it, that it deserved to be relegated to the ‘mistakes’ reel.)
Morgen’s film isn’t designed to be comprehensive, of course, nor to sustain the pedantry of super-fans (sure, it would’ve been a thrill to see Bowie’s coked-out Soul Train performance on a 16-metre-high screen), but some of the omissions – scant attention paid to a major work like Station to Station; not a glimpse of Angela Bowie, an inestimable influence on her former husband’s early success – remain surprising. (Props, however, for letting the great music video for D.J., one of Bowie’s most unsung singles, unspool in its near entirety.)
Still, Bowie’s inherent strangeness – his queerness, whatever shape it took – can’t help but radiate through the imagery. Luminously restored footage from the 1978 Earl’s Court concert finds a star in rousing homoerotic sailor mode, while eerie excavated Serious Moonlight-era clips, with the waxy, flaxen-haired ‘straight’ man gliding through a Bangkok terminus, make Bowie seem more alien than any of his arch glam guises – his otherness, trapped inside a pop purgatory, magnified by the unnatural hue of the footage.
The film is sprinkled with these little moments of revelation, even as it tangles with the weight of pre-digested myths; passages that glint with possibility as Morgen barrels toward an operatic crescendo – all cosmic explosions and thematic grandeur – that seems hell-bent on blasting beyond the infinite of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The accent is on transcendence, in bending the unruly tangents of a sometimes complicated career to a shimmering, if occasionally hagiographic vision of the musician as some kind of benevolent, galactic sage.
That’s the thing about Bowie, though: he meant so many different things to so many different generations, and Moonage Daydream is that kind of experience – for every obsessive who leaves scratching their head with a taxonomy of what might’ve been, there’ll be just as many audience members who emerge from the cinema with their minds blown. And there’ll be a soundtrack, and a commemorative book – and maybe even an officially licensed Major Tom onesie for your dog – to preserve the memory.
Moonage Daydream is in cinemas now.