OUTwatch Film Series Premieres Kicks of With Stunning David Bowie Doc “Moonage Daydream” September 23
The new David Bowie documentary, Moonage Daydream, succeeds not only for what it is, but what it isn’t. That has a lot to do with the clichés — and, occasionally, limitations — of the well-trodden format of the music documentary.
We know bad ones — or just boilerplate ones — when we see them. They typically open in medias res; the subject mumbles something backstage through celluloid grain and a plume of smoke. Here come the talking heads: Jakob Dylan, Dave Grohl, Bono. The director takes us from the cradle to the grave — and you’re left a few bucks poorer, wondering if this is all music is, in the end.
But never fear: Brett Morgen is at the wheel of Moonage Daydream, the new documentary plumbing the depths of Bowie. You may remember Morgen because he directed Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, that impressionistic 2015 masterstroke that overwhelmed viewers with the Nirvana leader’s essence — not just the Wikipedia-style bullet points, with LP covers hovering in an iMovie-looking void.
Despite Buzz Osborne of the Melvins’ kvetching about its factuality — and the film losing a little bit of cachet because of it — Montage of Heck remains the gold standard of music docs. By the end of its maelstrom, you felt immersed in Cobain’s very soul. And thankfully, Moonage Daydream is an accomplishment of a similar scale.
More of a long music video than a tedious drive through history, the film spends two captivating hours rolling around in surreal audiovisual representations of what made Bowie tick. But if you think that involves sordid tales, like when he flirted with Nazi iconography and black magic while blasted on outrageous amounts of blow, think again: Moonage Daydream is a jaw-dropping exploration of a 69-year-long life lived magnificently.
Chronology is elastic in the film. While Bowie’s various incarnations, like Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, get ample screen time (it’d be unimaginable otherwise), they’re less reported on in chronological order than left to float in a fishbowl, making natural and spontaneous connections. Throughout, Morgen leans psychological; time and memory loom heavily.
Most grippingly, Moonage Daydream directly addresses one of Bowie’s deepest fears; perhaps exacerbated by the cornucopia of substances he ingested across the decades, he felt in danger of succumbing to the schizophrenia that gripped his brother, Terry Burns.
Ten years older than his famous brother, Burns was instrumental in making Bowie the man and artist he was. He introduced him to outré culture in a multitude of forms, like modern jazz and the works of William S. Burroughs. This is an already public and well-trod aspect of Bowie’s story, but until you behold this film, you won’t grasp how he externalized those visions from the outer rim — trying to keep his demons at bay by blowing them up into world-beating cultural moves.
Much like in Montage of Heck, Morgen digs into his toybox of period cultural signifiers, including campy UFO flicks of yore and monochromatic Mickey Mouse cartoons, to ground Bowie in time and space.
But it’s far more illuminating when Morgen considers Bowie’s place in the lineage of flesh-and-blood, reality-bending weirdos of yore, like Friedrich Nietzche and Aleister Crowley. Because Bowie truly belongs in the pantheon of these eccentrics, painting the drudgery of human existence with strange and lovely hues, album after album after album.
Through this lens, you’ll probably walk away smiling and grateful — that somebody would come perilously close to sacrificing their mind and body to add beauty to the world, synthesizing experimental theater and arena rock and avant-garde classical music and cutting-edge fashion and so many other disparate elements to do so.
Bowie was unquestionably larger than life in every conceivable way, but perhaps Morgen could have afforded a little breathing room between the countless moments of seat-shaking impact. Thankfully, those moments are few and far between — and like Bowie himself, Moonage Daydream bows out with humor, heart and rapturous intelligence.
With Bowie’s death several years in the rearview, sometimes his musical achievements can become enveloped by endless chatter about his various personae. Of course, they’re crucial to his story. But it wouldn’t mean much without majestic tunes, and Morgen shows that they still destroy — from the early “Space Oddity” days to the infamous-yet-revolutionary Berlin period to Bowie’s underrated final run of albums, culminating with 2016’s Blackstar.
And in the end, the lasting impression isn’t simply of a cultural juggernaut, or a psychedelic songsmith, or even the guy with the bleached tips making vaguely Nine Inch Nails-style jams. Again, Morgen’s in the business of impressionism and abstraction, revealing the cosmic debris that birthed this subjects — how they burst through the mold of mere entertainment to irrevocably alter the spirit of the wider world.