A Moonage Daydream Review
If you are of an age that you were aware of David Bowie’s body of work in 2016, then you can remember where you were when you heard of his passing. I was living in Lincoln, Nebraska at the time, and my now-husband had just left for Army boot camp on January 2nd. Bowie’s passing on January 10th came on the heels of Scott Weiland’s accidental overdose on December 3rd and just before Alan Rickman’s death on January 14th. To say I am a fan of these three men is an understatement, but Bowie’s death affected me the most deeply. Informing Heath, my partner, through a letter, that David Bowie had both released his new album and passed away, at the devastatingly young age of 69, was nothing short of surreal. But what is Bowie, if not surreal?
Brett Morgen’s latest documentary, Moonage Daydream, captures that exact essence of David Bowie in all his beautiful complexity. Told entirely through concert footage, interviews, music videos and artistic home videos (although there should be a more extravagant word for what these videos actually are), Moonage Daydream has no interest in defining Bowie as a man; rather the film strives to create a space in which to meditate and bask in the influence of Bowie. More art piece than film, Moonage Daydream continually cycles back on itself, starting at the end with Bowie’s “Blackstar,” then traveling through his early years, the various tours that led him to Berlin, his reemergence after solitude, his years after meeting Iman, and then finally back to the beginning: the end.
Using this style of storytelling, Morgen paints a picture of Bowie that is, at first, broad, then begins to take focus, then zooms back out. Moonage Daydream is the first officially sanctioned film on the artist, with Morgen having access to five million different items within Bowie’s estate. This allows the film to reach a depth that no other exploration of the artist has even begun to approach. But that doesn't mean Morgen is concerned with contextualizing who he thinks the man to be. Morgen’s work always presents itself more as a mood in which audiences can dwell in their own thoughts and relationship to the work. While watching this particular piece of art, I couldn’t help remembering my own upbringing which was soundtracked by Bowie from a very young age: whether that be through his music, watching the 1986 classic Labyrinth, adoring the Bowie-inspired-1998-film Velvet Goldmine, loving the work of Wes Anderson and Christopher Nolan’s 2006 The Prestige, and finally, getting to see the touring exhibit David Bowie Is back in 2018 at the Brooklyn Museum. While heavily invested and present during my screening of Moonage Daydream, Morgen granted me the privilege and solace to process my own personal reckoning with Bowie’s death, by crafting a magical two hours in which Morgen brings him back to life.
Within this brief renaissance, Morgen does illustrate some form of narrative of Bowie’s life, but because Morgen doesn’t begin with Bowie’s childhood (rather his metaphorical death in “Blackstar”), he perpetuates the idea of Bowie as an ethereal being that was never born unto this world. Morgen’s Bowie seemingly just is, and as far as linear lifetimes go, that isn’t far from the truth. Bowie was already 21 when Morgen was born (similarly, 21 years later, when Bowie was 42, I was born) and Bowie’s debut, self-titled album was released the year prior to Morgen’s birth. So there is not a world in which Morgen existed without the presence of Bowie, no matter how small. There’s something to be said about that type of relationship with an entertainer, one that’s forged by the very nature of an artist creating in the world, but it’s undeniable that those types of bonds are tangible when a recording artist has become the soundtrack for one’s life, as undoubtedly Bowie’s music has for so many people. Morgen manages to capture that relationship so purely that Moonage Daydream can even act as a mirror by which to gauge your own life’s reflection and connection to the world.
There are a few moments within the film where Morgen seems to entertain being interested in tethering Bowie to some sort of common, worldly understanding (within his relationship to his parents, especially his mother, and his capacity to engage with romantic love) but Morgen wisely steers away from any final resolution in those departments. Rather, Morgen’s inclusion of these types of interviews where Bowie is asked about these familial relationships only illuminates the general population’s desire to know Bowie, to understand him and make sense of him. Bowie’s concert attendees, from the very beginning, possess a Beatles-like fervor in their admiration of him that borders on insanity. The screaming, the crying, the quaking; it’s all there. But when asked why they like him, it’s simple. They like his makeup, his clothing, his music: they simply like what he is. And in Moonage Daydream, this is what Bowie is. The documentary wastes no time detailing how Bowie studied music, or how he came to write most of his albums. With the exception of a few montages of him in the studio in Berlin, or a scene detailing how he would write lyrics only to chop them up and sing them out of order, Bowie’s connection to his music is almost entirely a state of mind where he channels the music out of the very ground on which he stands. His nomadic search for himself, his new muse, his new talent, and his new sound is far deeper than merely learning how to play a guitar. Morgen spares us the how and instead treats us to the who.
Mirrored in Bowie’s search for himself, throughout the course of his ever-changing career, Morgen’s own contextualization of sound and image also evolves over the course of the film. The audience can expect to see most of the footage repeat itself, at one point or another, while the music and Bowie’s inner-monologue continues in a linear fashion. Morgen manages to touch on a good deal of Bowie’s discography, but the music might not always match the “correct” footage. Instead of being disorienting, however, this use of repeated footage but showing the footage in a new, or deeper, context plays into our own interpretation of memory and sound. So, in that sense, Moonage Daydream is exactly that, a daydream in which our understanding of both Bowie’s life and our own can come together and align in a way that has never happened before. Morgen has created a capsule, not dissimilar to a sense deprivation tank, where Bowie and the audience are one, within the womb of Bowie.
As the film draws to a close, and you find yourself approaching the “Blackstar” once again, you’ll begin to feel a deep sense of grief as you remember that the film does, in fact, have to end. Bowie’s already met Iman, he’s found some form of real connection to this mysterious place he called home, and now it’s time for him to depart. It’s a tragic, but gorgeous, end to a story that everyone already knew. Some artists truly do transcend this plane, sacrificing a part of themself that they’ll never get to benefit from as much as we get to. Brett Morgen, while making Moonage Daydream, suffered a near-fatal heart attack that resulted in a week-long coma..but he survived. He attributed his heart attack to smoking and lack of exercise, but also to his tendency to overwork. Not only is Moonage Daydream a love letter to the life and art of David Bowie, but it provided the opportunity for Morgen to reconcile with his own obsessive search for artistic achievement. He’s lucky in that in his own search, he could take solace in Bowie’s.
Something happened on the day he died. I thank Brett Morgen for capturing an essence of him, very much alive.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.