It’s probably impossible to make the definitive documentary about a figure like David Bowie, who was so much larger and grander than life. The beauty of Brett Morgen’s velvet-and-facepaint collage Moonage Daydream is that it doesn’t try to be definitive. Instead, it’s a glide through Bowie’s career, hardly complete yet somehow capturing both the spirit and the genius of this most enigmatic and alluring artist. Morgen—whose films include the Kurt Cobain documentary Cobain: Montage of Heck and The Kid Stays in the Picture, about high-flying studio exec Robert Evans—has painted this sprawling mural using only archival material, including clips from television talk-show interviews and lots of concert footage. The effect is a kind of swoony, merry-go-round swirl; there are no current-day talking heads to break us out of this dream.
Morgen seems to recognize that, from the moment Bowie splashed onto the scene in the early 1970s—his first two albums, released in 1967 and 1969, were not hits—to the moment he died in 2016, there were almost too many David Bowies to count. Morgen begins with the artist’s Ziggy Stardust persona, circa the early ’70s: he was a slender reed of a man with a choppy strawberry-red haircut, eyes rimmed with stark eyeliner. The concert footage Morgen chooses from this era is electrifying: Bowie is part butterfly, part untouchable glitter god, a creature of splendid beauty whose remoteness is part of his appeal. The crowd of English kids who turn out for his concerts can’t get enough. There’s footage of them streaming into one of Bowie’s shows, dressed in the best version of cool clothes they can muster—you can tell most of them don’t have much money, but they already know that swagger counts for a lot. Many have teased their hair and painted their faces with lightning bolts. A girl sitting outside the stage door tearfully explains that she’s been waiting for a long time just for a glimpse, but she believes she’s missed him.
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What’s fascinating about this early section of the film is how devoted these young people are to a figure who held himself safely away from them, even as he gave his all during performances. There’s a lot of talking in the first section of Moonage Daydream. Some of it is voiceover narration from Bowie himself, culled from various sources—the effect is ghostly and touching. Morgen also includes archival clips of Bowie appearing on talk shows both in the States and the U.K., and, in his shy, awkward way, explaining his ideas about gender fluidity, long before there was an accepted term for it. One U.K. talk-show host comments disdainfully on his outfit, a gorgeously tailored suit with extreme shoulders, worn with glitter sox and towering platform sandals. You know right away who’s the hero and who’s the enemy in this scenario, and it’s easy to see why, his glorious gifts as a writer and performer aside, Bowie’s guarded charm would win young people over immediately. He told them, in his appearance and actions as well as actual words, that they didn’t have to let anyone else define who they should be, how they should feel about the opposite sex or their own, that they could create a self and inhabit it comfortably—perhaps easier said than done, then as today, but how could you not love a performer who urged you toward that freedom? These early sections of the film are the most affecting, capturing how extraordinary Bowie was for his time. No wonder those kids, in their ragtag finery, adored him.
From there, Morgen traces Bowie’s evolution not just as an artist, but as a person who ultimately grew to feel more comfortable sharing bits of himself with the public. He includes clips from Bowie’s films—among them The Man Who Fell to Earth, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, and The Hunger—as well as snippets of interviews in which Bowie explains how and why certain albums came about. In the mid-late 1970s, exhausted and in need of recharging, he went to Berlin. There, he tried to make sense of the East-West divide, but couldn’t capture his ideas in sound. He called in his friend Brian Eno, resulting in what came to be called the Berlin Trilogy, three albums (Low, Heroes, and Lodger) released between 1977 and 1979, born partly of experimentation with ambient music, freeing something in Bowie’s work. Shortly thereafter, he spent time traveling the world, which seemed to instill in him a new optimism. The result was the 1983 album Let’s Dance, considered a sellout by many critics of the day, though the footage from the era included in Moonage Daydream suggests that this period of exuberance and joy was an important transition for Bowie. The interview clips from this time show him fully at ease with himself, ready to answer any earnest question as honestly as possible—a far cry from the shy, cryptic Bowie of the early 1970s. They also point the way to the Bowie who met and instantly fell in love with the supermodel Iman, to whom he was married until his death. The images Morgen includes here—of the two laughing and wrapped in each other’s arms on a beach, or dancing together in an unguarded moment—are a kind of balm. In the early 1990s, if you wanted true happiness for any rock star, you wanted it for David Bowie.
Though Moonage Daydream is unapologetically a scrapbook rather than a conventional portrait, you still get the feeling that Morgen was trying to pack in as much information as possible. Maybe that’s why the movie feels slightly bloated; a little careful trimming wouldn’t have hurt. But the point stands: Bowie was too big, and too magnificent, for any of us to fully grasp, and his loss still hurts. If nothing else, Moonage Daydream captures him as we’d like to remember him: dazzling, sensitive, full of questions—and in the end, as happy, probably, as a truly brilliant person can ever be.
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