This trippy doc amalgamates experimental and standard forms into a flexible procession of interviews layered over classic song after song. Psychedelic and trippy but willfully coherent in its recounting of the singer’s creative life, Morgen’s montage of archive footage, endorsed by the Bowie estate, presents the icon as the typically polite, self-reflective philosopher. The filmmaker, introducing the film at Sheffield Doc/Fest, highlights his determination to avoid cliched accounts of history or a series of ‘talking heads’ style musings from musicians’, family and friends’. Without any unnecessary obfuscation, Moonage Daydream allows for a more transient experience of the artist’s shifting identities; this feels much more refined than Morgen’s Cobain doc Montage of Heck. The film never feels held in place or time, in fact many of Bowie’s talents were amplified by remaining ahead of his time. Not much, if any, chronological signposting is overtly present in the documentary, only perhaps by way of Bowie himself.
This is a film to experience in a cinema if possible; the colours, in particular, are remarkably evocative as they blend between live footage and music video. Transcendental films such as this rely heavily on editing to ensure the experience has a tangible understanding for its audience; here, Morgen’s energy never falters. Brilliant music films such as Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense show a great act perform live hit after hit whereas Moonage Daydream bridges this live footage style with something akin to Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, a large-scale informative collage. Perhaps a major criticism of the film could be how much of a trip it is with little to no mention of Bowie’s drug use at points in his career, though this shouldn’t detract from an audience’s ability to be overwhelmed and awestruck.
Morgen finds success here in allowing Bowie to be himself: so palpably alive and real, every word is believable and visible, while he retains his mystique and an existentially-aware aura that he so politely exhibited at all times. Where the music speaks for itself, Bowie underpins each shift in persona or output with philosophical explanations. Again, the brilliant editing can be identified as the film’s defining element, enabling the vibrant, nuanced and chaotic to flow alongside introspection gives the audience a uniquely intimate vision of the artist. Perhaps a criticism of the film could also be in its choice of footage, specifically in interviews, no mention of Iggy Pop or Mick Jagger for example, key influencers and collaborators. Still, this is somewhat justified by giving Bowie all of the agency to speak to us entirely from his perspective. Of course, there would be endless musicians and artists willing to testify to his influence or collaborative magic, from Lou Reed to Nile Rodgers to Trent Reznor, and many more; they are all present in a much less overt sense.
Localising the icon’s profound creativity becomes the overriding narrative. Even when loosely chronological, no focus or time is given to his ill-health in his final years, no agency is given to illness – rightly so, the focus remains on his massive cultural status and unflinching artistry. Undeniable in his humanity, Morgen never allows Bowie to shy away from his past or his present as each moment passes, but the director allows the singer to part ways with his audience on his own terms, as if the trajectory of his music was a purposeful journey we’ve all embarked on together. This is what I truly loved about this film – each individual viewer, if a fan of the musician especially, will see their own Bowie. Mine is rooted in the much darker musical tones of the 1990s, working with Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and immersing himself in a new digital age. For some, he will always be Ziggy Stardust, still, for us all he will always be a shape-shifting magician.