An icon of music, performance art and fashion, David Bowie dazzled audiences for more than 50 years before his death in 2016. He was a rock god, a queer icon, an ’80s sale, a mystical mime, a loving husband, a mode of showmanship, and more. Undoubtedly, documentary filmmaker Brett Morgen had an enormous task ahead of him to summarize the life and legacy of a man of many personas in the feature-length film. Moonage Daydream. However, if you expect this music document to play the subgenre’s standards, you’re in for a rough awakening.
Morgen delves boldly into the psychedelic, less concerned with making a film than shaping an experience. Be warned: your mileage may vary.
Moonage Daydream defies convention.
Forget talk-head interviews or an opening line that quickly puts David Bowie’s Cliffs Notes down. The documentary maker behind the Oscar-nominated sports doc On the ropes and the devilishly entertaining showbiz doc The child remains in the picture is not interested in letting others speak for the glam rock deity.
The film is flooded with Bowie’s voice, which changes over the years and becomes lower and more relaxed as he ages. Moonage Daydream draws on a range of archival sources, including video and audio interviews, to introduce the public to Bowie’s spirit and spirituality. Talk show clips alternate with concert footage, where fans are mesmerized by his intoxicating bodysuits and raw sexual allure. However, these building blocks of a biographical documentary are not listed. As teased in the trailer for Moonage Daydream, stock photos are splashed with violent colors. Trippy swirls play over audio clips as well as Bowie songs. Perhaps cynically, I was reminded of the iTunes Music Visualization, which pulses in unpredictable patterns and colors to the MP3 your computer is playing. It’s beautiful, sure, but I wouldn’t call it deep.
Moonage Daydream might confuse casual Bowie fans.
If you’re looking for Morgen’s latest to learn about Bowie’s highs and lows, you’ll be disappointed. The film is uninterested in specificity, skewed title cards, and gliding through the decades of Bowie’s career with plenty of visual flair but few solidly presented facts. One of the omissions is Bowie’s first wife, making his later romance with Iman seem pure and destined. Controversies are not covered or covered by a boisterous sound mix that implies drama without revealing details.
There’s more or less a forward trajectory from his glitter makeup early days to his elegiac final album. But along a slippery timeline of Bowie musing on his “hodgepodge philosophy,” his passion for painting, and his evolving musings on the nature of art, there’s little to grab hold of. If you don’t know the steps of his story yet, you will probably get lost along the way.
Moonage Daydream is less of a film and more of a museum exhibit.
Are you aware of the emerging trend of immersive art exhibitions? The paintings by the likes of van Gogh and Klimt have been redesigned in a 3D space, perfect for Instagram selfies. Glistening and moving, their brushstrokes from long ago become interactive as they are projected across solid walls, enveloping the viewer in masterpieces that come to life. This is what Morgen seems to be aiming for with Moonage Daydreamand I admire his apparent ambition.
To support Morgen’s vision, indie distributor NEON is releasing the film at the Toronto International Film Festival and in a limited theatrical run, exclusively on IMAX. The cosmic candy-colored edits of Bowie’s archival footage are meant to be displayed en masse, swirling in front of the audience as if to envelop it. The soundscape, pounding waves of Bowie’s interviews and music with a rat-a-tat-tat of sputtering gears just might be intoxicating, spurring you to move away from the concreteness of ordinary bio-docs in favor of something purposefully more ethereal and inexplicable.
At first, I was elated to be swept up in this powerful swell. The music was playing so loud I could feel it vibrating to the beat of my rib cage. Ziggy Stardust’s songs playfully threatened to shatter me on the air, and it was divine. The concert images took me to a time before mine, where I might be thrown into a crowd of glittering British youth, with beaming faces and open hearts. A Monday dream come true!
Are you having a ‘bad trip’? There’s an app for that.
However, as Morgen progresses, he deviates from such cathartic concert footage to moody reenactments, muddled montages, and a barrage of film clips ranging from nosferatu and The Wizard of Oz until Labyrinth. You could extrapolate that Morgen links Bowie’s influences to the artist’s own work to illustrate a continuum of imagination and daring. But long before the 134-minute runtime ended, I grew tired of the film’s mystical meandering and ambiguous allusions to well-known rock history.
Maybe the problem was that I didn’t see this in IMAX at all, but in a small theater. Perhaps, like Stanley Kubrick’s trippy movies or the free love music of the 1970s, Moonage Daydream is best experienced while intoxicated. Perhaps my anticipation of learning more about Bowie rather than being immersed in his general vibes was an impenetrable barrier to this cinematic interaction. For my part, I struggled to find the flow of the film, as it diverges from young and old Bowie voices and rushes through the darkness to enjoy more pulsating clashes of chaotic color and sound. For me, the charm died long before the film’s last curtain, and I felt disconnected by the indulgences of Tomorrow.
Following its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2022 in the Special Presentations category, Moonage Daydream a special order exclusively in IMAX theaters begins September 16.