Director: Brett Morgen
There’s a sequence in Nicolas Roeg’s seminal 1976 sci-fi film The Man Who Fell to Earth in which its alien antihero Thomas Newton (David Bowie) reclines in his isolated lake house and absorbs media from around the world on a wall of television sets. The viewer is left to ponder his capacity to take it all in, to sort, order and contextualise. When looking back at the film overall its easy to identify why Bowie was chosen for the role; his sculpted persona of androgyny, the space-age lullabies, his more literal alien presence as an Englishman in the US.
These images are recontextualised here in Brett Morgen’s sprawling, indulgent but frustratingly incomplete documentary on Bowie, Moonage Daydream. Here, however, it feels as though it is Thomas Newton that is channelling Bowie, rather than the other way around. Morgen’s film mashes up the creative explosion emanating from Bowie between 1971 and 1983. It jumbles it, shuffles it, collages it, clashes it. At it’s most successful it presents all of the shades of Bowie during this period all at once. Like that bank of televisions. Most acutely, the vision of Bowie conjured is a man brimming with too much creativity. A nomad struggling to maintain one sense of self before another comes forward to dominate.
Bowie’s death – mere days after the release of Blackstar – shook me more than any other celebrity passing before or since. While there’s always an element of sadness, this loss felt seismic and personal. For an artist of such widespread adoration and acclaim, his music had always felt personally precious to me. A one-on-one communication. That and the sheer breadth of his career generated in me overwhelming admiration. In the days and weeks that followed clips emerged that highlighted a man of deep thought, wisdom and foresight. The world without him felt different. I knew I wasn’t alone in this, and that the process of sifting, cataloging and summarising his achievements would begin in earnest.
Moonage Daydream is not the final word on all things Bowie. In spite of its expansive running time (2hrs 20), Morgen has chosen to share with us the version of Bowie that he loved, and in a manner of his own preference. This makes for idiosyncratic viewing that is at once pleasingly personalised and annoyingly scattered.
It’s a good half-hour before Moonage Daydream gets through beginning. The a-chronological formlessness is initially quite difficult to get a handle on as Morgen splices up songs with animations, archival footage, classic science fiction cinema and an array of psychedelic graphics. For a long time it feels as though we’re building toward a title card that never comes.
It’s even longer before any sense of narrative shape emerges, obscured by Morgen’s decision to cut and splice with such restless abandon. Too often, perhaps, watching Moonage Daydream feels like being Thomas Newton in that scene. You have three films running at the same time – a concert movie, a video greatest hits, and another video greatest hits playing out of order – and Morgen is asking you to digest all three at once. While it’s undeniably refreshing to experience a doc like this that isn’t stuffed with simplistic talking heads, Morgen’s miasmic anti-narrative sprawl can test the patience.
So it’s not until about an hour in that a loose trajectory asserts itself. In that time we see plenty of footage from The Man Who Fell To Earth reconfigured with Bowie’s glam-rock period as its soundtrack. The Thin White Duke years are skipped entirely (save for a late-film appearance of “Word on a Wing” to mark Bowie’s mid-’80s creative bankruptcy), Berlin is dutifully – welcomingly – covered, as well as Bowie’s curious but contented globe-trotting of the early ’80s.
A traveller of the world, its interesting how Bowie’s pilgrimage from Germany to the far East is similarly documented in his acting career (footage from Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence slowly overtakes The Man Who Fell to Earth in frequency), and overall Moonage Daydream throws new light on Bowie’s screen choices and how they reflect his varying mindsets and values at any given time (Labyrinth footage crashes in as soon as people start accusing him of selling out). It would have been interesting to see this angle investigated further.
But, just as this more conventional documentation becomes the norm… it stops. Unintentionally(?), Morgen suggests that Bowie’s marriage to Somali fashion model Iman in ’92 effectively ended his tenure as a creatively interesting artist. There is little-to-no-interest here in anything beyond 1983 (save for, inexplicably, “Hello Spaceboy”, which manages to take up two spots on the movie’s finite soundtrack). Perhaps too pained by the loss of this icon, the subject of his death in 2016 is skirted in the vaguest terms, making the back section of Moonage Daydream feel vague and curtailed by editorial preference. Anyone interested in late-period failures, rebirths, soundbites or creative flourishes will remain unserved. Moonage Daydream closes as it opened; coming full circle, returning to the glam and the dense collaging of pop materials.
So no, not the final word on Bowie. That, one feels, would require a massive multi-part series. The kind of invested authoritative documentation that is usually reserved solely for The Beatles. Instead, Moonage Daydream is rather like a one-off oversized coffee table book of images, fashions and flourishes from an admittedly stunning decade of provocation, experimentation and excess. One that’s low on text but high on bracing visual stimuli.