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The record-breaking touring exhibit David Bowie Is made stops at 12 museums around the world from 2013-18, acquiring new elements specific to a number of those destinations along the way. The thematically organized retrospective was a deep dive into the influential art rocker’s massive legacy in music, style, video, performance and even his less widely known talent for painting and drawing. For his feature documentary, Moonage Daydream, Brett Morgen takes a more impressionistic approach, exploring the Bowie persona as a composite creation, a chameleonic alien who shrugged off the enigma to engage with the world as himself only in the last two decades of his life.
What Morgen’s multilayered collage has going for it is incredible wraparound sound treatment. Bowie tracks from across the 50-plus years of his career have been retooled for pumped-up theatrical presentation by music producer Tony Visconti and sound mixer Paul Massey. But for this lifetime Bowie fan at least, there’s a huge gap between listening to the artist’s music and listening to him blather on about it without actually saying much.
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Bowie was many things, but a great interview was arguably not one of them, at least not often, based on the evidence of seemingly countless hours of audio and television clips sampled here. We get his glam-rock days of cultivating a mystique that extended from his androgynous look to his fashionable bisexuality; his philosophical and spiritual wanderings, struggling to grasp the transience of existence (“I was a Buddhist on Tuesday and I was into Nietzsche by Friday”); and his ultimate conclusion that, yes, it all does matter after all, resulting in a platitudinous commitment to embrace positivity.
Bowie describes himself as a collector of personalities, and it hurts me to say this, but anyone encountering him for the first time in Morgen’s film might be forgiven for concluding that alongside the musical genius, he could be a pretentious bore.
That reductive dismissal is inadvertently furthered by Morgen’s busy visual approach, randomly punctuating the film with bursts of acid-trip psychedelia, animation, color washes and graphics, to the point where the movie starts to seem more like an art installation. Many fans will be just fine with that, which probably makes Neon’s plan to include IMAX bookings in the fall theatrical release a smart one. But others might be left craving something as blandly conventional as a talking-head interview or two.
Even more empty than the self-consciously splashy visual flourishes are the constant barrages of movie images — lifting from Kubrick and Dreyer, Murnau and Méliès, Eisenstein and Oshima, Buñuel and Bergman, Warhol and Whale, with a special fondness for Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. With few exceptions, all this says more about Morgen’s diligent rights clearance team than it says about Bowie, beyond that he was engaged in a continual act of self-invention, by design distant and unknowable until he stepped forward and introduced himself to the world, shedding the artifice.
The methodical mosaic of Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck evidenced illuminating empathy for its subject at every step; even his officially sanctioned Rolling Stones doc, Crossfire Hurricane, was an effective enough chronicle of the band’s story. But Moonage Daydream, told entirely in Bowie’s own words, often seems like unlimited archival access in search of a perspective. Especially as it stretches on toward and then past the two-hour mark, the film feels shapeless and baggy, as if Morgan, who also edited, has dumped all the Bowie data from his hard drive onto the screen and is still figuring out how to organize it.
That’s not to say there aren’t rewards for the Bowie faithful, chief among them the extensive concert footage, going back as far as Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars appearances in the early ‘70s through the “Outside” and “Earthlings” tours of the mid-to-late ‘90s. Performance clips from the Berlin years are especially cool, though this is one place where it might have been stimulating to hear from some of his key collaborators from the period, like Brian Eno and Robert Fripp.
Morgen does occasionally capture the amusing side of Bowie, notably in his time in Los Angeles. Draped in the backseat of a car sporting dandified “Thin White Duke” elegance, he talks about putting himself in dangerous situations to see what it would do to his music. Since he hated L.A., he thought going to live there for two years as “a foreign body” might spark something new in him, with “Cracked Actor” providing droll accompaniment to those observations. Nodding to his lower middle-class roots, he acknowledges that America filled spaces in his imagination that England couldn’t.
The closest the film gets to Bowie opening up about anything personal is in the late section, where he talks about finally finding the spiritual and emotional freedom to explore a real romantic relationship, with Iman, his wife for the last 24 years of his life; and earlier when he discusses his half-brother Terry, an influential figure whose sophisticated taste broadened Bowie’s musical and cultural horizons. After serving in the Royal Air Force, Terry was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent the rest of his life in hospitals.
Morgen skims through Bowie’s movie roles with quick snippets, but spends more time on his 1980 Broadway debut as John Merrick in The Elephant Man. Given how often solitude figured as a theme in Bowie’s lyrics, the haunting loneliness of that character provides a welcome moment of reflection in a film more often consumed with a nonstop, cacophonous churn of sound and images. Getting a close look at his quite accomplished paintings is also interesting, at least more so than regurgitating long stretches of footage from the 1984 documentary Ricochet, which followed Bowie traipsing around Bangkok’s red light district while on the “Serious Moonlight” tour.
The embrace of more upbeat, commercial pop like “Modern Love” and “Let’s Dance” yields wry commentary from Bowie about accepting the role of the entertainer — having been stubbornly insistent for years that people had to like what he liked, he started to give them what they liked instead. And he rightly scoffs at the purists who accused him of selling out.
It’s to Morgen’s credit that he chooses not to retread ground amply covered elsewhere in conventional doc specials and music editorials, particularly in the immediate wake of Bowie’s shocking death in 2016. But Moonage Daydream is short on insight, and ends up feeling more enervating than enlightening.
While Todd Haynes successfully appropriated artistic aesthetics associated with his subject in last year’s The Velvet Underground, Morgen’s attempt to do something similar with shape-shifting Bowie doesn’t come close to the same immediacy. The film feels distancing, its embellishments too often superfluous. Bowie was one of the few recording artists whose albums I bought on vinyl back in the day the minute they were released, usually before even reading reviews. This film just made me want to crank up his music without all the tricked-out visual distractions and soporific talk.
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